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Pulse mental health counselor: ‘There’s pressure to move on… but it’s OK to not feel OK’

Dr David Baker-Hargrove coordinated mental health support for LGBTI people in Orlando in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting

Pulse mental health counselor: ‘There’s pressure to move on… but it’s OK to not feel OK’
Dr David Baker-Hargrove
Dr David Baker-Hargrove

Like many others, the first that counselor and psychotherapist Dr David Baker-Hargrove heard about the mass shooting at Pulse was when he awoke on Sunday 12 June 2016.

‘I woke up early. The first thing I normally do is go in to my email on my phone just to see if there are any messages of work stuff.

‘I had a Facebook message from the board president of the LGBT community center, and it just said “Can you give me a call?”, which is really weird for a Sunday morning. So I did, and he said, “There’s been a shooting at Pulse. Can you come to the center and help us with mental health?” “Sure,” I said.’

‘I didn’t even ask what had happened or what was going on. “We don’t have shootings at gay clubs,” I thought: gay clubs are not typically places where violence goes on.

‘I had no idea what I was walking into.’

‘So, I got there, about an hour or two later and people began to tell me what was going on, and the enormity of it all began to sink in … to a degree that I don’t think it could because I don’t think it did completely.

‘Then it just started become an urge to actually do something.’

From the Navy to Two Spirit

Baker-Hargrove grew up in Houston. He transferred to Orlando in the early 90s with the Navy. In 1994 he met Robert, the man who would later become his husband. The two men now have a three-year-old daughter, Whitney.

In 1995, he decided to leave the Navy and stay with his partner in Orlando, having already started training to become a psychotherapist. Not long after, he started his first internship.

He has consistently worked with the LGBTI community throughout his career, first doing counseling with an AIDS support organization and then through private practice. He also did stints as Board President of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce and of Orlando Pride.

In August 2015, using money he saved from his private practice, he opened Two Spirit Health Services, a non-profit health center for local LGBTI people.

In short, he was in the perfect position to offer help when Pulse happened last summer.

‘That put us into a meteoric trajectory,’ he says today. ‘Before then, people in the community knew who I was because of all the voluntary work I’d done, but they didn’t know what Two Spirit was, or that it’s also a medical clinic, not just mental health.

‘Pulse happened and we were thrust into the spotlight because we were perfectly positioned as an organization to promote the response and give ongoing health services. We’ve probably sustained five years of growth in the last 11 months.’

‘When gay people are upset, where do they go? They go to a bar’

On the fateful morning, Baker-Hargrove realized he had to make decisions fast.

‘All of these counselors started to turn up. I’m trained with the American Red Cross in disaster mental health response, so I kind of knew what I needed to do. I needed to organize these volunteers. We needed to create a work plan.’

‘The first thing we did was create a Google spreadsheet to get everybody’s information. There were a couple of people we just started to work together really well. One of them was my future development director at Two Spirit. She and I started to work on this work plan: What are we going to have these people do, what does the community need?

‘The First Unitarian church, which is a very welcoming congregation, offered us their Fellowship Hall for emergency counseling. That was ready to go by Monday morning.’

‘I got on to the media and started to talk about it and get the word out. From that point we looked for places where we could send people, where counselors would be needed. One of the things we realized, when gay people are upset, where do they go? They go to a bar.

‘Someone came up with the ideas of these big old buttons that said “Counselor”. So we were able to send counselors out to the public so they could be easily identified.

‘On the Google spreadsheet we allocated shifts people could sign up to, and each shift would have a supervisor that was more seasoned and could surmise what was going on. We had counselors in the nightclubs every night. We would send counselors to businesses.

‘People just kept coming’

‘On Monday evening there was a huge candlelight vigil in front of our Performing Arts Center, and there’s a big lawn there. At that point in time, you still couldn’t get on the street where Pulse was located because it was all barricaded off as a crime scene. So the lawn of the Performing Arts Center became the first memorial site.

‘We had counselors there and people just kept coming.

‘That was what we did for three weeks, between June 12 and 4 July. We had about 650 counselors working on that project, and we had about a 1,000 mental health encounters we were able to log.’

‘It was rough, financially, but we made it work’

He says after the 4 July weekend, he saw a steep drop off in volunteer numbers – which he had been expecting From that point on, he and his team at Two Spirit were pretty much on their own.

‘At that point there was no promise of money, there was no funding, and I just said, “The doors are open. If you need help, come get it.” And hoped and prayed it would somehow work. And it did. And it was rough, financially, but we made it work with the small staff we had and we were able to grow over the last 11 months, and so here we are.’

In fact, in response to demand, Two Spirit has grown greatly in that time, from seven full-time staff to around 21 today.

‘There’s a lot of people who haven’t even reached out yet’

Baker-Hargrove says around half the patients are uninsured, so it relies on grants and non-profit donations: many made specifically in recognition of the work it does helping the community in the aftermath of Pulse.

Whereas first responders have predominantly taken advantage of a trauma counseling program provided at the local university, Two Spirit has concentrated on helping the LGBTI community.

‘This is really a marathon in what we do in terms of providing healing services, because there’s a lot of people who haven’t even reached out yet. We still get requests for services from people who were in the club that night.

‘I understand that completely because that’s just the way we do things. It’s “Oh, I’m OK,” and then you realize at some point you’re not OK.

‘Everybody is affected in different ways. Some people pretty significantly. Other people, maybe they don’t show it but their wounds run deep. And other people are more resilient.

‘But trauma just goes hand in hand with our community. We all feel marginalized to a degree. We all have this over and over again, feeling throughout our lives of being psychologically knocked down.

‘Especially if you’re not a gay white male, then if you’re part of our community it’s even harder. You have double stigmatization, maybe because you’re trans or a person of color, or not male.

‘We’ve seen a rise in HIV and STD’

‘A lot of us have been sexually abused as young people, or emotionally abused or rejected. A lot of us have struggled with addictions. All of this stuff comes to the surface when something like this happens in our community.

‘We’ve seen a rise in acting out behaviors. We’ve seen a rise in HIV and STD [sexually-transmitted diseases]. HIV infections are sky rocketing here. We have people struggling with addiction and alcoholism and anger, just a lot of struggling. And some of it is just unconscious, people don’t realize they’re not OK.’

‘Things are really tense here right now’

He says today’s one-year anniversary of the shooting is prompting anxiety in some people.

‘Things are really tense here right now. Everybody is dreading this. There’s a lot of things planned, but it’s not good excitement. It’s tension and it doesn’t feel comfortable.

Does he sense people just want the anniversary to happen and get out of the way?

‘Yes. It’s not about something bad is going to happen on the 12th, that’s kind of unlikely. It’s the ghosts of last year haunting us. We need to remind people of that. As people, we fear things that are illogical, and the fear and tension is about this date, but the horrific things have come and gone.’

‘You have to take a moment to remember and heal’

When it comes to offering advice to anyone for this day, his is simple.

‘It’s OK to not feel OK.

‘Even for LGBT people outside of Orlando, we’re all linked on the same tree. It’s perfectly natural to feel tension and anxiety and fear. I think it hit us all as a worldwide community, it hit us all so hard. And it’s going to be hard for a while. I think there’s so much pressure to shrug it off and move on. Sometimes it’s just not possible.

‘You have to take a moment to remember and heal.’

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