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In Uvalde, Latinos worry over enduring mental health toll of school shooting

“What they saw was not normal. What they heard was not normal. This is where we have to literally wrap our arms around them," the CEO of South Texas Rural Health Services said.
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Guadalupe Leija's 8-year-old son, Samuel, was finishing second grade at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, when it became the site of one of the deadliest U.S. school shootings ever.

The father rushed to his son’s school after learning about the shooting on Tuesday. Law enforcement officials were already at the scene, but that did not stop Leija from feeling helpless.

Samuel survived. The boy was in a different building than the one a gunman came in and killed 19 children and two teachers.

Three days later, the second grader has not yet talked about what happened that day.

Leija described Samuel as "the type of kid that wants to know everything. But as of today, he has not asked about what happened or what's happening," he told NBC News Thursday afternoon.

To cope with the immediate and profound sense of loss, Leija and many others in their tight-knight, predominantly Hispanic city have been visiting each others' homes and attending vigils to express their sorrow and condolences to the families who lost their loved ones and provide support to one another.

Image: A woman lights a candle at a makeshift memorial outside Uvalde County Courthouse in Uvalde, Texas, on May 26, 2022.
A woman lights a candle at a makeshift memorial outside Uvalde County Courthouse in Uvalde, Texas, on May 26, 2022. Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images

But concerns over the long-term mental health toll a tragedy of this magnitude can have on the Latino families affected are emerging at a time when “the whole town of Uvalde is pretty heartbroken,” Leija, who is Mexican American, said.

The Uvalde Behavioral Health, which is part of the South Texas Rural Health Services network, is one of the mental health sites in the city providing grief counseling services for survivors of the shooting and relatives of the victims.

'It is not shameful to ask for help'

"Right now, they're feeling grief, but they're going to feel anger soon," Myrta Garcia, CEO of South Texas Rural Health Services, told NBC News. "They're going to feel anger because of what happened."

"They’re going to feel shortchanged that their child died," Garcia said of parents who lost a child in the shooting. "We won't be able to give them an answer because we don't know the answer, but we can teach them coping skills so they can better understand what happened."

Uvalde Behavioral Health is one of a few centers that belong to the National Health Service Corps, a subdivision of the Department of Health and Human Services made up of a network of health care providers working in underserved communities.

About 22 percent of the population in Uvalde is uninsured, a number consistent with the nationwide number of Latinos who don't have health coverage; the city of Uvalde is roughly 80 percent Hispanic, most of them with Mexican American roots.

Nationwide, the uninsured rate among Latinos (20 percent) is more than double that of non-Hispanic whites (8 percent), according to recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

While being uninsured can limit health care access, community health centers such as the one South Texas Rural Health Services manages in Uvalde often "make all kinds of concessions if a patient does merit mental health," Garcia said.

But perhaps more important is the work of destigmatizing mental health services across Latino communities in need, particularly those closely affected by the Uvalde school shooting, Garcia said.

"It is not shameful to ask for help and ask for some guidance or some therapy," she added.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference Friday afternoon that anyone who has been affected by the shooting would have access to free mental health services from state and private providers.

"When I say anyone, I mean the totality of anybody who lives in this community," Abbott said. "We believe that you would benefit from mental health care services."

His remarks come about a month after he slashed $211 million from the state department that oversees mental health programs.

According to the 2021 State of Mental Health in America report, Texas ranks last out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia for overall access to mental health care.

The Community Health Development center, another mental health site that belongs to the National Health Service Corps, said in a Facebook post Wednesday that they were "grieving the loss of many family members in the massacre."

"We are praying for everyone as we set a plan to address the need for long term grief counseling. We ask for your patience as we grieve and coordinate a united response to help our community," the center said in the post.

While Leija has been doing what he can to keep his young son as far from anything related to the shooting as possible, the father also knows his child will eventually come to him with questions.

According to Garcia, it is possible that Leija's son and the other children who survived the shooting are in a state of shock and may not be able to articulate the experience for a while.

"What they saw was not normal. What they heard was not normal," Garcia said. "This is where we have to literally wrap our arms around them, pray for them, give them services, encourage them, love them."

In the meantime, Leija said he and his wife have been preparing for the moment when their son is finally able to speak about what he lived through on that day.

“Whenever the time comes, we’ll be ready for it,” Leija said. “It’s going to be a while before everything gets back to normal. ... It is going to be a long while.”

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