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Following Shooting, El Paso Sees Surge In People Seeking Mental Health Help

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to check in now on El Paso, Texas, where a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in this city four weeks ago, by his own admission targeting people he believed to be Latino or immigrants. Since the shooting, mental health care professionals in El Paso have seen an increase in people seeking mental health services. Emergence Health Network is the largest mental health provider in El Paso County. Its crisis hotline received double the typical number of calls in the days following the shooting. We wanted to talk more about what kind of services people who've gone through something like this might need, so we've called Kristi Daugherty. She's a licensed clinical social worker, and she is the CEO of Emergence Health Network. And she's been pushing for more mental health resources in El Paso. Kristi Daugherty, thanks so much for talking with us.

KRISTI DAUGHERTY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, the crisis hotline saw an increase in calls in the days following the shooting. Without compromising people's privacy, can you just talk a little bit about what people said when they called, what kind of help were they looking for?

MARTIN: Well, the initial few hours or 24 hours at least after the incident, our number was the only number published. So we were getting calls asking for help, asking questions about the incident, all the way to people requesting how they could pick up their car from the parking lot. The main calls coming in with regards to behavior health services - just a lot of people asking why, why El Paso, why us, a little bit of, you know, I was supposed to go to that Walmart that day - some survivor guilt. So we did a lot of just talking to people, letting them say what they needed to say. And if we felt like they needed more, we connected them with one of our clinicians.

MARTIN: Were people able to connect with clinicians? Because one of the things that I read and one of the reasons we found you is that I read that mental health care in El Paso has not been easy to access for many residents. So there are two questions there. One is, have people who want that kind of help been able to get it? And why is it that people who say it hasn't been that easy to access - you yourself have been pushing for more services - why has it been difficult?

DAUGHERTY: Well, I'm not aware of the concern about it being too difficult. We had staff on the ground in the actual parking lot of the Walmart as it was happening. Since then, we actually set up what we called a co-op with two partners here in El Paso to be able to provide support groups twice a day at five different locations throughout the community for two full weeks. And then after that, we've stood up a clinic where people can just walk in and get the help or call and we can send someone to them if they have issues with transportation.

MARTIN: In a way, I think it could be a pivot point, could it be? I think that there's often been a concern in communities of color, for example, that seeking these kinds of services is a bit stigmatized, a bit taboo. Perhaps people are less familiar with it. And so has this kind of opened the door for more people to seek these services who perhaps might not have known about them?

DAUGHERTY: Yes, I believe so. We deal with stigma every day with regards to mental health. You know, people from the neck down, you can go to the doctor and be welcomed, and there's not a lot of questions. If someone has cancer, they don't steer clear of you, they embrace you. And I think that's something that we're able to use in this instance is, you know, from the neck up, your brain and your emotions are so important. And being able to talk to somebody about how you're feeling is critical to your health, your overall health.

MARTIN: There's a report that - it's pretty old now. I mean, this is a 2001 surgeon general's report that specifically focused on the Latino community. It said that only 20% of Latinos with symptoms of a psychological disorder talked to a doctor about their concerns. But there's been a more recent report suggesting that only about a third of Latinos with a mental illness received treatment. This is according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Have there also been sort of cultural factors that you found, particularly in this area, that have sort of added to the reluctance, perhaps, of people to seek this kind of care in the past?

DAUGHERTY: I think the broad brush answer I could give to that is a lot of times the Hispanic or Latino culture tend to turn to faith-based, maybe like a priest or maybe the Catholic Church or whatever church they're affiliated with. And they really, truly believe in that healing when it comes to mental illness. And I'm glad you said doctor because at times, mental illness is a true chemical imbalance. And they do need medication. And I think the heightened awareness that our nation has put on mental health and the stigma on mental illness has really opened up doors for individuals to seek treatment.

MARTIN: So I want to be very clear that there's nothing good about what happened in El Paso. I want to be extremely clear about that. But I do want to ask you whether you, as a person who's worked in this field for quite some time, are you seeing a change in attitude at least where you are, that you are more able to speak about the work, that people are more open to it, that - an openness now that might not have been there before had people not experienced such an extreme event?

DAUGHERTY: No, I think that's a great question. And I'd like to maybe target our first responders because police and fire and our sheriffs and our Border Patrol were all exposed to this. And that culture is a culture of they don't seek mental health help. And I have to tell you, since the incident, the openness and the willingness of our law enforcement and our firefighters to seek help and actually talk about their feelings has been a tremendous shift.

MARTIN: And now you know I'm going to ask how you're doing.

DAUGHERTY: You know, I get asked that every day. I have a lot of wonderful people checking on me. I'm doing good. I work with, you know, 650 superheroes, if I could use that term, that all stepped up regardless if they were a therapist or if they were one of our custodial staff. And we wrapped our arms around this community, and we continue to do so. And we will, as long as we need to, in order to make sure El Paso heals and remains the most amazing city that you could ever live in.

MARTIN: That's Kristi Daugherty. She is the CEO of Emergence Health Network. That's the largest mental health provider in El Paso County. Kristi Daugherty, thank you so much for talking to us.

DAUGHERTY: Thank you. I appreciate the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.