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Colorado theater shooting trial tests mental health network

The state has invested $20 million to expand its mental health services. They included a 24-hour hotline and a dozen new drop-in crisis centers.

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    Kirsten Anderson helps run the Aurora Mental Health Center, one of many free counseling centers opened in 2013 for local residents who have been affected by trauma after the theater shooting.
    Brennan Linsley/AP
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Pastor Chris Hill's suburban Denver church has become a place where shooting victims and first responders have found counselling and peace in the years since a masked gunman opened fire on a nearby movie theater.

He and others say there will be a greater need for such havens with opening statements set for Monday in the trial of James Holmes.

Graphic details, kept from the public by a court's gag order, will surface during testimony, which counselors say could trigger flashbacks, nightmares, and other traumatic responses that test the mental health support networks Colorado has tried to strengthen since 12 people were killed and 70 others were wounded during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises."

"You can almost feel the community holding its breath," Mr. Hill said.

Pierce O'Farrill, shot three times in the attack, anticipates testifying and is bracing. He thought would die on the theater floor, his face surreally covered with popcorn. Mr. O'Farrill has relied on faith and counseling to get through.

"I'm prepared to feel what I'm feeling and not hide my feelings," he said. "I know what got me in my darkest times was pretending everything was OK."

Mr. Holmes' lawyers have acknowledged their client was the theater shooter, but they say he was in the grips of a psychotic episode. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and his mind state will be at issue during the trial, which will proceed as planned after a judge Thursday denied defense attorneys' longstanding request to move the death penalty case out of Arapahoe County.

Jurors, who will be closest to the grisly photos and testimony, will have access to counseling, but only after the trial, because they can't discuss the case until then.

The rampage put so much focus on mental health – of Holmes and of his victims – that the state stepped in with a $20 million expansion of services, which included a 24-hour hotline and a dozen new drop-in crisis centers, an approach taken by public and private agencies in other states after mass shootings. Colorado mental health professionals hope to help at-risk people before they turn violent and those dealing with trauma and depression.

Liza Tupa, a behavioral health specialist with the state human services department, said the counseling hotline logged more than 14,000 calls in its first four months.

Ms. Tupa is concerned that stigma surrounding mental illnesses keeps people from help, but she has seen progress. "The tragedy in Aurora created a sense of urgency around the conversation, and more people are coming to the table to talk about mental health," she said. "People are curious. They want to know how to help."

Carl Clark, a psychiatrist and director of a crisis program at the Mental Health Center of Denver established with the infusion of state money, said he worries the trial will dredge painful memories. He's also concerned that mentally ill people will isolate themselves out of fear that coverage will lead others to consider them dangerous. "How much support would everybody in the community have if it was just OK to talk about it?" Mr. Clark asked.

The Aurora Strong Resilience Center, a grassroots response, opened primarily to support theater shooting victims, and its programs include Bible study, tai chi, and massage therapy. The services are free and many were suggested by participants, said Kirsten Anderson, a psychologist who helped develop the center.

Ms. Anderson has seen theater shooting victims come together at Aurora Strong with survivors of the 1999 Columbine high school rampage to share their experiences. "One of the greatest ways to recover and heal is to give back," Anderson said.

Hill has seen a similar community response through the programs at his 7,000-member church, which is part of the international Potter's House network.

In the aftermath of the attack, he opened his chapel round-the-clock for anyone who needed a place to pray or reflect, making clear that his two professional counsellors and 16 interns would help anyone – not just church members – for free.

Hill said first responders have been particularly receptive, because many are concerned that seeking help through their police or fire departments will lead peers to consider them unfit. He considers therapy to be an essential part of healing.

"I believe in the power of prayer," Hill said. "But I also believe in the power of counseling."

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