Months after Aurora theater shooting, days after Sandy Hook, officials launch trauma site

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The tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last week has reignited policy debates in Colorado that had quieted since the July 20 massacre in Aurora. And for victims of the theater shootings, the devastation in Connecticut can also trigger painful memories. That's why officials in Aurora decided to launch a local website this week dedicated to helping victims of trauma work toward recovery.

Since the shooting last week left twenty elementary school students and six adults dead, officials across the country have been debating what can be done to prevent such horrific mass shootings, often citing the Century 16 massacre in Aurora that left twelve dead and the killings at Columbine thirteen years earlier.

Locally, the gun-control debate has gotten new attention this week -- but so have questions about mental health services tied to the Aurora shooting.

And yesterday, the 7/20 Recovery Committee, an ad hoc group of Aurora representatives working with the Aurora Mental Health Center, announced the launch of a website specifically aimed at aiding victims in trauma recovery. The site, aurorastrong.bluesunsupport.com, is a new version of a web-based recovery program provided through a company called BlueSun Inc.

While the site is no substitute for professional help, its backers say it can function as a useful self-help tool for those affected by the July theater shooting -- offering information and guidance geared toward recovery.

It's also the first time in recent months that we've heard from the 7/20 Recovery Committee, which got negative attention earlier in the fall when families of the deceased and injured victims said they were not happy with the process through which donations were being disbursed. After months of complaints that they were being left out of the process and that it was taking too long to get the money to those who needed it, the governor's office announced in November that 38 claimants would each be receiving a portion of the $5.3 million raised.

Meanwhile, the 7/20 Committee has been working with the Aurora Mental Health Center and BlueSun Inc. to roll out this new website -- and they decided to push ahead this week, given the tragedy in Connecticut.

"When you have an event that is as horrific as the one in Connecticut...it's very difficult for people who are still struggling with the original event, to see something like that occur," says Charles Benight, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and the founder of BlueSun Inc. "It creates a lot of stress in people who are already vulnerable."

Benight, an expert in trauma, says he and a colleague first got a grant for this kind of online program in 2006, and have worked to fine-tune the interactive tool since then. BlueSun Inc. has partnered with different groups across the country to tailor versions of the site to victims of specific tragedies, such as Hurricane Ike.

Continue for more on the site and the work of the 7/20 Recovery Committee.

"What we wanted to do was harness the power of the web," Benight says. "It's really meant to be a self-empowerment site. An individual can learn a bunch of things and develop skills related to recovery."

He adds, "We customize the site specifically to the population."

Benight says clinical trials have shown that the site does help survivors of these tragedies deal with anxiety and depression.

And Benight is also working on a site for those who suffered through the devastating Waldo Canyon wildfires this summer.

The site is built with six interactive modules that address different coping skills.

"A lot of trauma survivors don't want to talk about what's going on," he says. "It's very difficult to share.... But we know that if you reach out for support...it gets better."

The site helps victims deal with triggers that remind them of the trauma and also has tools for relaxation, which Benight says is key.

"Often with trauma survivors, especially around a shooting, physically they get very hyper-alert," he says. "It makes them feel distressed and out of control again. This relaxation training teaches them how to calm down."

The site also encourages victims to be their own best advocate, recognize when they need help and take steps to seek out that help.

This kind of encouragement is central to the work of the 7/20 Committee, according to spokeswoman Karen Morales. "The focus of the 7/20 Recovery Committee is on the long-term impacts," she explains, noting that an important component of their work is "connecting people to the resources that are available in the community."

She says, "We wanted to launch the website now...so people can start to track how they are feeling."

Studies show that around nine months after this kind of event, victims' trauma can start to peak again, she says, and the upcoming court hearing for suspect James Holmes could also be re-traumatizing.

With the website launch yesterday, Morales notes, the committee has been spreading the word through the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance and through businesses, faith-based groups, the media and others.

Morales says that survivors of mass shootings can often develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and that's something that the 7/20 Committee is targeting: "What we are trying to do is really get ahead of that."

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "Video: Diana DeGette pushes for immediate vote on high-capacity magazine ban"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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