In Newtown, mental health needs persist 2 years after school shooting

Agencies in Newtown, Conn., are setting up support system for next 12-15 years with youngest survivors in mind

Anxiety, depression, guilt, sleeplessness, marital strife, drug and alcohol abuse — two years after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the scope of the psychological damage to children, parents and others is becoming clear, and the need for treatment is likely to persist.

"Here it is two years later, and it's still hard to deal with. But God, you didn't want to know me two years ago," said Beth Hegarty, a Sandy Hook mother who happened to be inside the school that day with her three daughters, all of whom survived.

Hegarty and her girls are among the many in this close-knit town of 27,000 who have taken advantage of counseling and other programs made available through millions in grants and donations.

With the second anniversary of the shooting rampage approaching Sunday, agencies have been working to set up a support system for the next 12 to 15 years, as the youngest survivors approach adulthood.

Mental health officials say the demand for treatment is high, with many people reporting substance abuse, relationship troubles, disorganization, depression, overthinking or inability to sleep, all related to the Dec. 14, 2012, attack in which a young man shot 20 children and six educators to death before killing himself.

And some of the problems are just now coming to the surface.

"We've found the issues are more complex in the second year," said Joseph Erardi, Newtown's school superintendent. "A lot of people were running on adrenaline the first year."

The Hegarty children have had trouble sleeping and difficulty with loud noises and crowds. Whenever they leave the house, they keep an eye out for places they can hide in case something bad happens. In February, a school counselor suggested the family seek help because one of the daughters wasn't paying attention in class; she kept staring at the doorway.

Hegarty and her children have been receiving support from Newtown's Resiliency Center, an organization formed after the shooting that has seen rising demand for its offerings, which include art, music and play therapy. Hegarty said the programs have helped her become more "even-keeled."

Newtown has received about $15 million in grants from the U.S. Education Department and Justice Department to support its recovery. The Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, which oversees the biggest pot of private donations made to Newtown, has about $4 million left after paying out more than $7 million to the families of the 26 victims and other children who were in the same classrooms but survived.

Newtown Youth and Family Services, the main mental health agency, has quadrupled its counseling staff, adding 29 positions in the months following the shootings, Executive Director Candice Bohr said. She said the federal grant money that recently came through will help cover its costs.

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