Treating trauma and society’s ‘collective illness’: Mental health experts rally to provide long-lasting care after Tree of Life shooting

The Tree of Life synagogue on the final night of Hanukkah on Dec. 10, 2018. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Mindy Corporon didn’t want to celebrate Thanksgiving in 2014.

She’d managed to avoid the usual intimate family gatherings on the holiday by serving meals to people at a local church, alongside her husband and youngest son. But relatives still wanted to get together the next day.

Feeling panic, Corporon called her sister-in-law: “Can you please set two extra place settings?” she said. “Because, I just don’t know if I can show up and not have a place setting for them.”

In April that year, both her father and oldest son had been murdered by an avowed anti-Semite as they arrived at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City.

Fourteen-year-old Reat was there to audition for a singing competition. A former Ku Klux Klan leader shot him and his grandfather as they stepped out of their truck in the parking lot. Then the man drove 1 mile to a Jewish retirement center where he killed an occupational therapist who was there to visit her mother. Authorities arrested the man hours later.

Corporon spent the next months journaling, crying and praying an awful lot. She looked for relief in bicycling and swimming, yoga and meditation. Her faith and the support of so many loved ones kept her going.

Mindy Corporon. (Photo provided by Faith Always Wins Foundation)

Corporon did get through that Thanksgiving meal. She even brought the pies – Dad’s favorite minced meat and Reat’s strawberry rhubarb. But the next year she and her husband and son escaped to Belize for the holidays.

Grief still overwhelmed her. “The memories come with you,” she’d later reflect. “As much as you try to make changes, you really have to live through it.”

Four years after the Overland Park shootings, on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, a white nationalist walked into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and killed 11 people. This was the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in U.S. history, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The shooter told SWAT officers that he wanted to “kill Jews.”

Mindy Corporon’s experiences — and those of a growing body of people affected by violent hate crimes — provide a glimpse into how Pittsburghers may cope after the Tree of Life massacre.

This report explores the short-term and long-term effects of hate crime trauma for individuals and the community at large.

Healthcare professionals, faith leaders, elected officials and many others, from Pittsburgh and beyond, have rallied to support people affected by this tragedy. Whether or not the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill and city of Pittsburgh maintain that support, build alliances across differences and combat hate will have long-term implications for residents and the region. Some public health researchers believe we need to address a “collective illness” that allows such hate to thrive in the first place.

Corporon encouraged those affected by the Pittsburgh shooting to seek support from mental health professionals, and she gave practical suggestions on how family and friends could help. In an open letter to Tree of Life, she sympathized with the “pain, sorrow and fogginess” they were experiencing.

In the ensuing weeks, Corporon conducted interviews with nearly a dozen journalists, relating her family’s loss to the Tree of Life shooting. Corporon knew that as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve approached — not to mention birthdays and anniversaries — people who lost loved ones in the Tree of Life shooting would need extra support.

Community vigil in Kansas City following the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City)

Personally, she found it helpful investing her energies into worthy causes. In 2015, Corporon worked with local Jewish leaders to host an event marking the one-year anniversary of the Overland Park shooting. Then she created a foundation and a nonprofit that promote interfaith dialogue and acts of kindness. She coordinated workshops that gave former white supremacists a platform to speak against hate.

“It takes more than time,” she said. “It takes effort to get through it.”

Circles of vulnerability

Talia Levanon, executive director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, arrived in Pittsburgh from Jerusalem the Monday after the shooting. She traveled with a team of counselors to meet with community leaders and residents. Levanon, whose agency works with trauma victims all over the world, said she witnessed “much pain, vulnerability and grief” in Pittsburgh. “But on the other hand,” she said, “this could be a [chance] to develop community cohesiveness, resilience, pride and growth.”

Sarah Welch, director of JFCS Career Development Center (right), and Stefanie Small, director of JFCS Counseling Services, sort through letters and other materials sent to the Tree of Life synagogue shooting victims and their families. (Photo provided by JFCS)

Levanon described “circles of vulnerability” in which peoples’ relational or perceived proximity to an event can affect their level of trauma. They have varying degrees of social separation from shooting victims, mapped as concentric rings — from loved ones and caregivers closest to the source of trauma, out to wider circles of spiritual leaders and community members.

Psychological first aid begins with helping traumatized individuals closest to the center of those circles feel safe and emotionally stable.

“The rug was really pulled out from underneath a lot of people, because we all believed nothing could happen in Pittsburgh,” said Stefanie Small, director of counseling services at Jewish Family and Community Services [JFCS] in Squirrel Hill. During the week after the shooting, Small said about 200 people sought counseling through JFCS, just one of many agencies providing such support.

People were asking, “Are they safe? Is this a safe community still?” Others contemplated theological questions, Small said, wondering how such a terrible end could come to good people. Many narrowly missed being victims themselves because they chose not to attend Shabbat services that Saturday or had run late. They felt guilty about surviving.

“Every reaction after an abnormal situation is normal,” Small said.

Rabbi Keren Gorban, associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, has heard outrage over “another shooting,” with people asking, “Why haven’t we figured this out yet?” Some teens are concerned about friends “who are just sort of brushing it off,” Gorban said. She thinks those kids are simply processing trauma in their own way, or they’ve become desensitized to shootings. “That actually is what scares me the most, is that this, in some sense, is another shooting in the list.”

As for older generations, Small said a JFCS counselor reached out to Holocaust survivors specifically. “Many of them actually originally were OK. And then one by one they almost all called her back to talk to her a little bit more.”

Response to hate

Dagmar Herzog is a history professor at City University of New York who has studied post-Holocaust trauma. Herzog said “human-made” and “contempt-driven” violence can be more traumatic than natural disasters or other kinds of violence.

“It’s not random,” Herzog wrote in an emailed statement, “and it’s targeting you in your very existential being (whether it’s sexual or racial or ethnic or religious in motivation).”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased by 57 percent in 2017 – the largest single-year increase since tracking began in 1979. The FBI reported a 17 percent increase in hate crimes last year, most of them targeting race or ethnicity.

Samantha Ecker, 34, of Williamsport, Pa., kneels beside a memorial site at the intersection of Wilkins and Murray avenues last Monday. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

After a hate crime of this scale, Herzog said, symptoms of grief, anxiety and anger aren’t always immediate. Trauma can have a “very weird timeline. ...Often subsequent events re-trigger — or even transform the meaning of — the prior initial horror, in ways we can’t anticipate.”

Levanon noted that long after a tragedy, trauma victims may feel a heightened sensitivity to potential dangers. Emotional stress can manifest in children as misbehavior or physical pain — e.g. a child may complain of a stomach ache when really she’s feeling anxious after a tragedy.

Service providers have been distributing information on how to identify and cope with trauma, seek out counseling services and talk with children. Anyone seeking information can call UPMC’s 24-hour crisis help line at resolve Crisis Services.

Other agencies providing or hosting counseling services have included the Jewish Community Center, Allegheny County Emergency Services, the Center for Victims, Red Cross, Salvation Army and FOCUS Pittsburgh, among others. Pittsburgh Public Schools have made counselors from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services [DHS] available to students and held a series of public panels on caring for children in trauma. JFCS counselors spent time at three Jewish day schools.

“I think we have seen here the organic growth of the community coming together,” said Denise Macerelli, deputy director at DHS.

Hours after the shooting, Allderdice High School students organized a vigil attended by thousands of people from across faiths. The next weekend, Shabbat services in Squirrel Hill drew standing-room-only crowds. The University of Pittsburgh, the city and others hosted large unity gatherings. Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh, a self-described “craft-activism project,” have begun hanging blue crocheted and quilted Stars of David all around the city.

Still, according to Macerelli, “Healing from trauma is not all about intensive intervention. It is the small kindness. It’s an outreached hand. It’s a voice.”

Rabbi Gorban found that while walking through Squirrel Hill’s business district, she noticed “No Place for Hate” signs or similar shows of support in most storefront windows. “My hope is that that continues,” she said, “and doesn’t just fizzle once the immediacy of the trauma passes.”

Mindy Corporon recalled the importance of small gestures when grief made it so her family was “hardly functioning” — a friend cooking meals with her, sending a card or dropping off a holiday wreath. Even such simple acts, she suggested, can say, “I’m thinking of you.”

Trauma care as a ‘marathon’

Levanon emphasized that services responding to this trauma “are a long-term marathon. They are not a quick response.”

Allegheny County is coordinating that long-term care, though specific plans are still being developed, according to Macerelli.

A JFCS spokesperson said the Pittsburgh field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation lent support to these efforts in early November by convening a meeting with local leaders and counselors. Trauma care professionals involved after the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church in Charleston, South Carolina participated. The FBI declined to comment for this story.

Herzog believes that messaging from these leaders is critical. “Naming hate as hate is incredibly important; making connections between different kinds of hate — and, conversely, expressing solidarity and care and generosity across boundaries — is essential.”

Herzog pointed to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s support for Central American and Middle Eastern refugees as an example of solidarity across boundaries, as well as the “immediate outpouring of care” for Squirrel Hill from Pittsburgh’s African American leaders and communities. Herzog also pointed to #ShowUpforShabbat, a platform through which people posted images of Shabbat services around the world attended by people from across faiths. Additionally, Muslim organizations raised more than $230,000 to support victims and their families.

Carl Gerlach, mayor of Overland Park, said his administration brought together residents from various religious and racial segments to ensure “that the community understands everybody does things a little bit differently. And to make sure the city officials and police departments understand how each segment [of society] works.”

Although Mindy Corporon’s father and son were Christian, as was the third Overland Park shooting victim, their murderer thought they were Jewish. This led Corporon to study Judaism and then Islam, along with her own Christian faith. “I was ignorant about how much they had in common,” she said. “And I don’t think I’m alone. I think a lot of people just kind of have our own lane and stay in it.” Now, Corporon’s organization hosts an annual event that facilitates interfaith conversations and conference sessions asking such questions as, “Is your neighbor a white supremacist?”

Stars hang from a road block on Wilkins Avenue in Squirrel Hill, down the street from the Tree of Life synagogue. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In Charleston, the Emanuel AME Church shooting also inspired work that spanned boundaries. “It brought the community closer together,” said Joseph Riley, mayor of Charleston. “If you’re in the community, it’s like Mother Emanuel Church is now a part of your being.” He believes Charlestonians have been “forced to reevaluate their thoughts,” he said, and that the tragedy “enhanced their interest in participating, in their own hearts or some other way, in racial progress and understanding.” Riley has long been championing the creation of the International African American Museum to be located on the Charleston wharf where more enslaved Africans arrived and were sold than any other location in the United States.

To support people impacted by the tragedy, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime funded a collaboration of nine organizations to form the Mother Emanuel Resiliency Project. Local leaders also wanted “to seize upon the momentum and strong relationships demonstrated between citizens and police that were manifested during this tragedy,” wrote police chief Gregory Mullen in a report. So they formed The Illumination Project, which brings together “citizens with all the diversity they represent” to strengthen citizen and police relationships and address community problems.

‘Society itself has this sickness’

As important as support services are, Herzog said, “what people most urgently need is not just communal rituals of mourning or personal processing through talking but, above all, a sense of restored existential safety.”

Herzog hails the recognition of “post-traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD, as a mental health problem. But using the word “disorder,” she said, unduly “psychologizes” it as an internal problem, “rather than calling attention to all the dimensions of the political and social context that facilitated the terror.”

Janet Helms is a research psychologist and director of the Institute for the Study & Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College. She advocates for outreach programs that engage hate as an illness so as to treat people before they commit extreme acts of violence. “What’s really missing are treatments that focus on, ‘Why do people engage in these kinds of activities in the first place?”

Helms believes that hate crimes result from “larger society’s mental illness... And rather than engaging in denial, we need to do some more explanation for how we got to be this way.

“...Society itself has this sickness, if you will, that it’s transmitting to people.”

Helms noted that people often treat mental illness or other conditions by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. “When they feel bad, they abuse substances,” she said. “But we don’t really know why it is that when people feel bad about themselves, they actually go out and hurt other people. I think that’s what’s missing in our literature.”

Corporon believes that, “People that hurt other people have been hurt themselves.” While she doesn’t apply this to everyone, she knows many white supremacists experienced abuse as children. “I think they’re protecting themselves because they were hurt at some point before in their life, and that’s what they know.” Many, she said, have been taught to hate non-whites.

The man who killed Corporon’s loved ones received his first white supremacist newspaper, The Thunderbolt, from his father. He later wrote that minutes within reading it, “I knew I had found a home within the American White Movement. I was ecstatic.”

Helms said she thinks white supremacists can be driven by fear of someone taking something.“And when they take the something away from you, it makes you a lesser being. So you have to protect yourself by shooting people.”

Building alliances across differences and combating hate will have long-term implications for residents and the region. Some public health researchers believe we need to address a “collective illness” that allows such hate to thrive in the first place. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Before committing the Tree of Life shooting, Robert Bowers posted on the networking site Gab that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

Bowers likely felt he risked losing something, according to Helms. “What he was saying, in effect, is they are taking away my whiteness, and whiteness has value, and I want to make sure that they don’t take that away.”

In August 2017, white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”

Dylann Roof, after killing nine people at Emanuel AME, wrote: “White people are pretending…like they have a future. Well, unless we take real, possibly violent action, we have no future, literally... Now the fate of our race sits in the hands of my brothers who continue to live freely.”

Herzog said there is a “clear connection” among these violent and tragic acts of hate. “And between all of those and the fomenting of divisions, fear and contempt that continues to spread.”

This story was fact-checked by Tyler Losier.

Mark Kramer is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at mark@mnkramer.com.

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