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Health News Florida

Expert: Polk Shooting Spotlights Veterans' Mental Health Issues Amid War Ending, Pandemic

African counsellor sitting in front of patient listens his complaints
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Connection remains important, though the pandemic has increased the physical distance between us. People should make an effort to connect, whether it be on outdoor walks, FaceTime or Zoom, or some other way in which all parties feel safe.

Natasha A. Pierre, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Hillsborough County, says that every person should do a daily check-in on their own mental state.

Four people, including an infant, were killed in a shooting in Lakeland this weekend.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the accused is a former U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. While Judd said the suspect had been taking methamphetamine, there was no apparent motive.

At the same time, some veterans are experiencing increased feelings of guilt or anxiety due to the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan after the U.S. military withdrew after 20 years of war in the country.

Natasha A. Pierre, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Hillsborough County, said it's OK to feel unsettled as these memories and feelings resurface. These wartime memories may bring up moments of anxiety or cause insomnia.

"It doesn't make you weak, and your service wasn't in vain. This is the time to connect with other veterans, connect with your tribe, people who understand what you've been through and also understand how you're feeling at this time."

Public health officials say the COVID-19 pandemic has increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, further increasing stress and anxiety.

Pierre recommends that veterans seek out support groups to talk through their issues. Importantly, people should not think that they have to handle these feelings alone.

“I find that when that thinking allows us to really sink into a dark place that could really be detrimental to our well-being and our life,” she said.

The Polk County Sheriff's Office says a mother, her infant and two others were killed and another person was wounded in the shooting. Investigators say there is no apparent connection between the victims and suspect, whom USF is not naming due to the nature of his mental health status.

Those affected by the shooting will have their own kind of traumatic memories.

“This situation was horrific, all the way around,” Pierre said. “There's no one emerging as a winner in this situation. We have a family that has lost several people. We have a decorated Marine who has come to an unfortunate end.”

She also advises that every person do a daily check-in on their own mental state — asking themselves if they need sleep, space, connection, or more time in nature. It's something that has taken on added importance with the pandemic.

"The nation, the world, we've been in a pressure cooker for the last two years. There are many people who are frustrated, who are annoyed, who are hurt, who are disappointed, who are angry, because of the loss that we've experienced collectively over the last year."

Finding daily routines can help alleviate stress and bring consistency to the unruliness of the pandemic. Pierre offers journaling, meditation, or prayer as possible components of a new nighttime routine.

Connection remains important, though the pandemic has increased the physical distance between us, Pierre said. She advises that people make an effort to connect, whether it be on outdoor walks, FaceTime or Zoom, or some other way in which all parties feel safe.

But she also notes, “It’s OK to not be OK every single day,” she said. “To ask for help when needed.”

For more information on NAMI Hillsborough’s support groups, visit https://namihillsborough.org/.

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