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Strangers rally to offer free mental health help after deadly Fourth of July parade attack

(HIGHLAND PARK, Ill.) — A therapy resource for people affected by the mass shooting during a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, is going viral, highlighting the widespread mental health impact of mass shootings.

In the days after the shooting that killed seven people and injured dozens more, Alexandra Kaehler, an interior designer in nearby Winnetka, Illinois, took to Instagram to crowdsource a list of available mental health therapists to whom people could reach out.

Kaehler, a mom of three, also offered to pay for mental health services for people who needed help.

“I feel helpless right now,” Kaehler wrote. “But there are people who are traumatized by what they saw, and if there’s one thing I know it’s that therapy is so incredibly important. Hopefully this is one *tiny* thing I can do to help right now.”

Within hours, over 100 therapists reached out to asked to be added to her list, Kaehler told ABC News’ Good Morning America.

To date, there are over 200 therapists on the list, which Kaehler said she shared publicly so anyone could reach out.

“It just gave me so much hope in humanity in how ready and willing people were to help,” said Kaehler. “And I hope that it has an even wider reach than I know.”

Kaehler said she was attending a July Fourth parade with her family in her hometown of Winnetka when she heard about the shooting in Highland Park, which is just 15 minutes away. During the annual parade in a Chicago suburb, a gunman opened fire on parade-goers with a high-powered rifle.

Kaehler recalled receiving frantic calls from family and friends worried about her safety, but said she immediately thought of one of her best friends, whom she knew was at the parade.

Kaehler later learned that her friend, Natalie Lorentz, survived, but was sitting near people who were killed in the shooting.

“When I think about the experience that I’m having watching all of this unfold and thinking about what her experience was, it pales in comparison obviously, but I felt just really incapacitated,” said Kaehler. “It had never happened this close to home for me.”

Lorentz told GMA last week that the mental health recovery for her and her family has been “second by second.”

“I have moments where I feel panic and anxiety and like I’m back there, and then moments of just overwhelming sadness for what us and so many other people had to go through and then just numbness where I’m compartmentalizing and trying to put one foot in front of the other,” said Lorentz, who attended the parade with her husband, mother and three young sons. “It’s really just been a whirlwind of emotions.”

Lorentz added that she is worried about future mental health concerns for her sons, saying, “They’re young and not fully aware really of everything that took place that day. I’m more worried about a month from now, three months from now, what implications that holds for them.”

Jamie Kreiter, a Chicago-based licensed clinical social worker, said her concern about the long-term impact of a mass shooting like the one in Highland Park is the reason she responded when she saw Kaehler’s call for help on Instagram.

“People are forever changed by traumatic experiences,” Kreiter told GMA. “This community will be forever changed by this tragedy, so how do we heal? How do we move forward and mobilize?”

Kreiter, CEO and founder of Nurture Therapy, LLC, said she and her husband were both born and raised in Highland Park and had friends and family who attended this year’s parade.

Though Kreiter and her family and friends were safe, she said she, like so many other people, experienced secondary trauma, a type of trauma that comes from hearing about or seeing a traumatic event without physically being there or even having a direct connection to the event, according to Kreiter.

“What you experience is similar to symptoms of trauma — picturing yourself there, difficulty with concentration or focus, feeling overwhelmed and flooded by those images, difficulty sleeping, being hypervigilant and feeling that your safety has been disrupted,” said Kreiter.

Mass shootings that have made headlines recently in cities from Uvalde, Texas, to Buffalo, New York, each have the power to cause community trauma, especially when shootings happen in common places like schools, as with Uvalde, or grocery stores, as with Buffalo, according to Kreiter.

So far in 2022, more than 300 shootings that have resulted in four or more injuries or deaths have occurred in the U.S.

Factors including how much a person pays attention to the news, or how much time they talk about shootings with friends and family may affect the severity of trauma, according to research analyzed by FiveThirtyEight.

Dr. Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health who studies how mass shootings impact mental health, told FiveThirtyEight that research is still limited on how shootings may impact the mental health of people on a more widespread basis.

“The issue of mental health in community members who are not directly affected… most people in the mental health space think it’s a real issue but there actually has been very little research on it,” he said.

Kreiter said in Highland Park, thousands of people have sought therapy services at the town’s elementary school and high school, where therapists like herself have donated their services for free.

“We’re seeing people who are grieving not just loved ones who have been injured or lost but grieving the disrupted sense of safety,” said Kreiter. “Or they’re feeling overwhelmed with emotion or guilt, either that they were there or one small decision may have prevented them from being there.”

She continued, “I think I speak for many providers and community members that you just feel this loss of control. People no longer feel a sense of safety.”

Kreiter said she has been sharing information about trauma on social media so that people feel comfortable seeking mental health help even if they were not directly impacted by the parade attack.

“There are some people who weren’t there but were deeply impacted and perhaps have some hesitation to seek services,” she said. “Whether you were there or not there, this kind of trauma is very real.”

For people who have felt unsettled or unsafe amid the spate of recent mass shootings, Kreiter said she wants people to know that help is available.

In addition to seeking professional support, Kreiter said there are steps individuals can take as well to improve their mental health.

Her tips include limiting intake of the news and social media, especially before bed; leaning on your support system and community; resuming as much normalcy as possible and practicing grounding and coping skills in your toolbox.

If you are experiencing suicidal, substance use or other mental health crises please call or text the new three digit code at 988. You will reach a trained crisis counselor for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also go to 988lifeline.org or dial the current toll free number 800-273-8255 [TALK].

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