Like many communities and cities across the nation, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in San Jose, Calif., was forever changed on May 26, 2021, after nine employees’ lives were cut short by gun violence. The gunman, also a VTA employee, turned the gun on himself just as San Jose Police and Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies rushed into the VTA light rail operations building. Nine victims that early Wednesday morning quickly turned into hundreds. More than one year later, mental health professionals continue to work with our walking wounded, some who are trying to return to some form of normalcy, others who have not yet been able to return to the job or workplace they once knew.
The sad truth is that the shooting at the VTA light rail yard that day was one of 61 active shooter events in 2021.
“That criminal’s bullets harmed more than the innocent victims. Gun violence hurts innocent families and friends; it wounds innocent communities,” says Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who was on the scene that tragic day alongside the County’s Victims Support Unit.
In partnership with its four labor unions, the County’s emergency and social services, and the mental health professional community, VTA was thrust into developing a mental health program to not only support its employees through recent traumatic events but one that is proving to be necessary to sustain over time.
Find and fund mental health resources
An outpour of support from local and state elected leaders came by way of mutual aid, people resources, and emergency funding. A $20 million grant, made possible by California State Sen. Dave Cortese, has allowed VTA to contract with partners in mental health directly, which has been critically important, due to an already overwhelmed healthcare system strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Onsite mental health services and trauma counseling was provided on day one. One year later, VTA holds seven contracts with psychologists and therapists to carry the load. Similarly in the aftermath of the 2019 Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting, the County established a dedicated resource center, later named the 526 Resiliency Center, to provide additional counseling, programming, and overall support for those specifically impacted by the VTA shooting. This center is the building block for a future, much larger trauma and recovery center to provide support for the growing number of issues triggering stress and trauma throughout the community.
“These mental scars do not fade easily. We will stand alongside survivors of the VTA, of Gilroy, of all the carnage illegal guns do to this county, with counseling and care, for as long as it takes,” says State Sen. Rosen.
“The support we’ve received at every level has been tremendous,” says Carolyn Gonot, who became VTA’s new GM/CEO just weeks after the mass shooting. “Since that tragic day in May, everyone involved has been challenged in ways I never could have imagined. We continue to make progress, although sometimes one step forward, two steps back. But what’s most important is that we’re making progress together.”
Another initiative amid its first year of a two-year pilot is additional paid time off taken as mental health days where workers can take a “time out” if experiencing sudden trauma or stress.
Employees are allowed to use up to three days per year, no questions asked, or without penalty, which is important for union employees, most commonly frontline workers, who go by an attendance point system. “The last place we want someone who becomes triggered to be is behind the wheel of a bus or car, or in a train cab,” says Gonot.
Establish immediate and consistent peer support
Among these initiatives to prioritize mental health and support for frontline employees has been one of the more favored peer-to-peer programs established by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, in partnership with the non-profit organization Bill Wilson’s Centre for Living with Dying.
“It’s not uncommon to have a Critical Incident Support Team, or CIST, at a transit agency,” says ATU VP John Pospishek, who has been coordinating the peer-to-peer effort. CIST provides support to coworkers should they be involved in an accident or experience something traumatic. “This peer-to-peer training program is an additional level of support and modeled after programs most would see for firefighters and first responders.”
This process is what Dr. Tammy McCoy refers to as psychological first aid.
“Having a team that includes a mental health professional that can be available at the scene to provide an immediate resource and establish a connection can be lifesaving for the person who just suffered something truly awful,” says McCoy, who holds office hours at the 526 Resiliency Center four days a week and has become, in her words, “part of the furniture” at VTA. She also makes site visits to any of the five employee divisions whenever needed.
These are a few proven strategies that agencies can initiate to provide much-needed employee support. And it doesn’t have to be because an agency suffered a massive tragedy or large-scale accident. Daily transgressions that frontline employees endure are proving to be as harmful, if not worse, and draining their physical and mental perseverance.
The American Public Transportation Association has taken notice, highlighting topics of burnout, suicide prevention, and other mental health focuses because it simply cannot wait or be ignored. Take notice of employees showing signs of being disconnected or distracted, like a notable change in appearance, behavior, or attendance. Agencies can take the first step by starting the discussion on mental health and making it a part of their culture — the way so many have come to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion, for example. If this is something your agency has put on the “back burner” because of a lack of resources, knowledge, or experience, you are not alone. Start small and grow it over time. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is today.
Brandi Childress is Chief of Staff at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.
This article is dedicated to the 10 lives who will always be remembered: Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, Adrian Balleza, Alex Fritch, Henry Gonzales, Jose Hernandez III, Lars Lane, Timothy Romo, Michael Rudometkin, Paul Megia, and Taptejdeep Singh.