woman holding sign saying "grief counselor"

Coping Through Crisis

University counseling experts step up to offer emotional support after the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Michelle Paul noticed the silence of the scene as she drove into the parking lot of the Thomas & Mack Center just after midnight on Oct. 2. Couples wrapped in thin blankets huddled together. Girls wearing cowboy hats rested their heads on each other’s shoulders. Parents and children gripped each other’s hands without saying a word.

Just a short time before, these groups of strangers were singing along with the country music at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on the Las Vegas Strip. In the hours after the mass shooting that killed 58 people and injured nearly 500 more, UNLV’s events arena became the refuge for hundreds of concertgoers and Las Vegas Strip visitors displaced by the shooting.

Paul, director of The PRACTICE, a UNLV community mental health clinic, was among the many university experts who stepped up to offer emotional support.

“I can honestly say there was a part of me that asked, ‘Can I do this?’” Paul said. “Then I decided that I was going to use all of my training to help people as best I could.”

Paul gently approached stunned evacuees. She listened to those who needed to cope by recounting their harrowing experience. Other times she simply sat beside victims too shocked to speak. She, along with Metro Police officers, offered periodic updates, which calmed some of them down.

Meanwhile, professionals from UNLV’s various mental wellness programs had begun preparing to help both the campus and our larger community. They know the recovery and grieving process can be lengthy. Programs that offer services to the community — including the School of Medicine, The PRACTICE and the Center for Individual, Couples and Family Counseling — staffed up to provide extended services for free.

MGM Resorts reached out to UNLV’s School of Social Work for help marshaling counseling resources for the many visitors and employees affected. School of Social Work Director Carlton Craig and lecturer Laurie Lytel gathered information on services and self-help tips from international, national, and local websites. Craig brought order to all the emails and lists of places offering free services.

Within hours, licensed clinicians from around the area — including those from UNLV’s clinics — began gathering at a ballroom at Circus-Circus to organize. Lytel and other group leaders, systematically assigned clinicians, two to three at a time, to ensure those affected by the tragedy had access to services for addressing traumatic symptoms like shock and anxiety.

Only after the many requests for counselors had been taken care of did Lytel have the chance to process what she herself experienced. “It hit me a bit later on Monday,” she said. “I’ve walked down the Strip. We all have. You just never know.”

Lytel said it can be easy for anyone to obsess over knowing the reason behind Sunday’s attack.

“There’s no sufficient answer for someone to do something like this,” Lytel said. “Sometimes you have to just look at the person in front of you and help them. Sometimes that’s all you can do.”

Jamie Davidson, UNLV’s associate vice president for Student Wellness, said that about 100 students saw counselors through the Student Counseling and Psychological Services in the four days following the shooting — about three times the usual number. CAPS hired an additional therapist to help ensure all students seeking counseling can be seen. He expects some will need intensive treatment from CAPS.

All staff and graduate students of the PRACTICE reported to the clinic Monday to welcome walk-ins for free counseling. Paul said they will continue to provide this service for the foreseeable future.

“We will help patients understand the trauma process and what to expect,” she said. “We will remind them that what they’re feeling and going through is normal.”

Katherine Hertlein, director the Center for Individual, Couple, and Family Counseling, said that, in addition to offering services to people in area casinos, her staff and graduate students engaging in their practicum worked overtime to see more clients at the center in the week following the incident. She also sent the clinic’s students-in-training to various campus events to share information about the mental health programs available to them.

Hertlein noted that any victim of the shooting can go to the clinic at any time — even if it’s a year after the tragedy — for free counseling sessions.

Due to a strong response, Student Counseling & Psychological Services is extending the drop-in counseling services through Oct. 13.  Drop-in counseling will be open from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9:a.m.-5 p.m. on Friday in the health education room on the first floor of Student Recreation and Wellness Center.

“The way that individuals respond to trauma varies quite a bit,” Davidson noted. “But the good news is that that they are not alone, they are not at fault, and they will recover.”

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