DENVER -- Since the start of the year, published reports list more than 250 mass shootings in the United States. Recently well-publicized shootings in El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Gilroy, Calif., and the STEM School shooting in Highlands Ranch have forced survivors of the Aurora theater shooting to revisit that July night in 2012.
“It happened a long time ago, and to a lot of people it feels like it just happened,” said Kirsten Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Aurora Mental Health Center.
Just hours after what was, at the time, the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, the Aurora Mental Health Center was the lead agency helping survivors cope with the images they witnessed and the survivor’s guilt they may have felt.
“The amount of phone calls and requests for help we received in the beginning was huge,” Anderson added. “Seven years later it’s less, but seven years later people are still coming forward.”
The night of the Aurora theater shooting, more than 1,200 people were inside the movie complex. Four-hundred people were in theater 9, where a majority of the shooting took place and another 400 were in theater 8, next door, where gunfire from theater 9 pierced the walls and killed and injured others.
Theater Shooting survivor gets help for the first time — seven years later
“I’ll never forget what I saw,” said a theater shooting survivor, who asked to remain anonymous because of the stigma attached to mental health patients. She recently reached out for help after going more than seven years battling the memories of that night.
“It’s just... guns are hard for me now. I don’t really go to the movie theater,” she added. Her decision to seek help came a day after the May 7, 2019 shooting at the STEM school in Highlands Ranch. “I guess it just brought back bad memories and I just wanted to cope with alcohol. Then I just decided I needed to get help."
The shooting survivor said she watched people bleeding and being removed from the theater by emergency crews. Immediately after the shooting, she said, she ignored requests by her mom to get help.
Other first time patients now seeking mental health support
Managers at Aurora Mental Health say her story is not unique. The facility reports a recent uptick in patients seeking assistance for the first time since the night of the theater shooting.
“I think people who have survived the Aurora Theater Shooting have to get to a place where they have a functional relationship with their trauma, because it’s not going away," said Erin Staniszeski, a therapist and manager at Aurora Mental Health who has treated several theater shooting survivors.
Since the shooting, Aurora Mental Health has provided more than 6,600 therapy sessions to 170 different patients. The treatments have been provided at no cost to the survivors.
“When new people come in and they feel helpless, or like it's never going to get better, I can tell them that I know that it does because I’ve seen that happen for many people I’ve worked with,” added Staniszeski.
No cost treatment forever
Shortly after the theater shooting in 2012, grant funding was provided, and it paid for “no cost” therapy sessions for the shooting survivors.
In recent years that grant funding has run out but the free therapy sessions have continued. The board of directors voted shortly after the shooting that the facility would provide therapy forever to survivors at no out-of-pocket cost.
“It was a horrible thing what happened,” added Anderson. “And I think people have done an amazing job of coming out of it and trying to make this community a better place.”