Mental Challenges

For Those Who Were There, Stigma Worsens the ‘Invisible’ Mental Health Fallout From the Capitol Riot

Erin Bunch

Graphic: W+G Creative; Photos: Getty Images / John Cherry / Uschools
On January 6, 2021, violent insurrectionists breached the United States Capitol building in an ill-fated attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of a free and fair election. The unbelievable riot shocked the nation and the world, but for those working inside the Capitol building, and the Capitol Police who battled to protect them, it did more than that. NBC News senior Washington correspondent Hallie Jackson has been reporting on the what she calls "the invisible fallout," the lasting mental health repercussions of a dangerous insurrection that left five people dead.

I spoke to Jackson about the many conversations she's had with lawmakers and staffers who lived through—and are continuing to re-live—the infamous and terrifying events. If one thing stands out, it's that mental health stigma persists throughout the country and people need to know it's okay to seek help when they need it—especially those who were there on January 6.

W+G: From your reporting, which stories about the Capitol riot stick with you?

Hallie Jackson: There are so many stories from January 6 that I've heard in the course of my professional life and then also in my personal life. Some of the stories are well-known. For example, some of the things we heard during the impeachment trial—the stories of lawmakers narrowly missing insurrectionists as they were storming the building, and the stories of the Capitol Police officers who were doing their best to hold back this crowd of rioters. The images are what stick with you the most.

What are some of the mental health issues Capitol staffers are reporting back to you as a result of that day?

One thing we kept hearing again and again in the course of reporting this series on mental health fallout was that it wasn't just January 6. It was reliving it for many people over and over on television, because there was an impeachment trial, there are news stories... every time one of the rioters is arrested, there are clips that played showing the insurrection yet again. And so people experienced the trauma initially on January 6, and then they talk about how they feel like they're re-experiencing it, they're reliving it again and again, even 100 days later.

I've interviewed a lot of members of Congress, but I had never interviewed a member of Congress sitting alongside his therapist. That's what happened, though, as Congressman Dan Kildee (D-MI 5th District) from Michigan opened up to us exclusively about the post-traumatic stress he experienced after January 6. I spoke with his therapist James Gordon, MD, who is the author of a book called Transforming Trauma and runs The Center for Mind-Body Medicine here in Washington, and he said that the Congressman is experiencing prolonged fight-or-flight symptoms, basically, and something called hypervigilance. These are things that are supposed to go away, but for Congressman Kildee, they did not go away. He was experiencing symptoms, as he tells it, such as extreme irritability, chest pain, tension, and a lot of stress. He wasn't himself, and he reached out to Dr. Gordon and started doing therapy sessions every Saturday.

I spoke with another woman in my reporting who works for a member of Congress in one of the office buildings on the Capitol complex. She was in her office [January 6], and she was so scared about what would happen that she texted her friend what she was wearing in case her body needed to be identified, and where her car was parked in case somebody needed to go get it. That's how scared she was. And she told me that even now, she will sometimes start crying without knowing why, and then she realizes it's because she's reliving those moments from January 6 again and again. She's having recurrent nightmares, too—she talked about how she will wake up gasping for air because of these nightmares, and she's never experienced that before. So she reached out to the counselors provided by the Congressional Office of Employee Assistance on both the House and Senate side.

In our reporting, we found a huge surge in demand for those mental health resources. There have been more than 11,500 mental health consults or trainings, and we discovered that on the House side, for example, they are on pace to be 200 percent busier this year than in a typical year, as far as counseling sessions, trainings, and consults. And that is in large part because of January 6. They actually brought in almost double the number of counselors. I had a congressional source tell me the Senate side was bringing in more counselors, too.

Part of that surge is due to the pandemic. Folks were already feeling stressed and having anxiety, and then you add to that January 6, and they saw this uptick in demand for mental health care. For the Capitol Police, too. That's another group that is equally affected, not just by what happened on January 6 but also earlier this month in April, when there was another attack resulting in the death of officer Billy Evans.

Who seems to be most affected?

Anecdotally, it's a wide variety. Because of privacy concerns around the counseling provided by these congressional resources, I couldn't tell you who the 11,500+ counseling interactions involved individually, but we know that those services support not just members of Congress and high-level staffers, but everybody. Members of the Capitol Police have been seeking support, too.

There have been some deaths by suicide among Capitol Police since the events of January 6, correct?

Yes, and those events are obviously impacting a lot of people in the Capitol community. That's part of the reason it was really important for us to focus on awareness of what is being done as far as mental health support here.

How has stigma around mental health affected recovery efforts in the Capitol?

We've heard from many people who feel there's still stigma around mental health support and mental health care, and all of the people we talked to on camera said the most important thing is to help lift that stigma, to let people know that it's okay to reach out and ask for help.

Congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL 13th District), for example, started holding regular Zoom sessions with colleagues—totally informal—just so people could talk about their experiences. He has an interesting story because he is one of the people who was on that baseball field in 2017 when Congressman Steve Scalise (R-LA 1st District) and others were shot, so he's somebody who has experienced trauma on Capitol Hill before and he talked about how important it was to be able to open a space for people to share their stories. That's why he started doing these very informal sessions on Zoom, just to be able to let people in his orbit know they can talk about it. And he told people that if there is a need for more mental health resources, he wanted to hear about it. And then Congressman Jason Crow (D-CO 6th District) was in the House gallery when the insurrection happened, and he has a text chain with other members of Congress who were in the gallery where they touch base every so often just to make sure they're all doing okay.

The blowback to our interview with Congressman Kildee has been really interesting. The response has been largely positive, but he recently posted a number of really nasty things that people have said, calling him weak for seeking out mental health support and calling him names I'm not going to repeat. We talked about that when we did the interview. I said, "You're a member of Congress sitting here with your therapist, what do you think the reaction is going to be?" and his response was that it might not be all positive, but he described hundreds of people who have called or texted or emailed support to him as well. His attitude was, "Hey, I can take it, but if I can actually help one person know that they can reach out for help and that it's okay, and that you don't have to be ashamed of it [it's worth it]."

For many people, it's hard enough to ask for help, and yet we're still at a moment where there is a very clear stigma and backlash to that when it happens.

Are any permanent changes being made to the mental health care system in the Capitol as a result of the riot?

There is a request in for an [approximately] $250,000 increase in funding for some of the Congressional counseling support. And law enforcement in the Capitol is developing an internal peer support system to make sure that the police officers have some of the support they need moving forward. That's said to be rolled out later this year.

If there remains a gap in care, it's that there aren't counseling resources for contract workers; however, a group of bipartisan lawmakers have actually called for more support for people who are not full-time employees but work on Capitol Hill. There has been a push to try to make sure that those people have the resources they need, and that's making its way through the system now.

The question is if  what they're doing is enough, and I don't have an answer for that yet. I don't think anybody does, and that's why we're going to continue to shine a light on it. Because what often happens is there's a ton of attention paid to something right after it happens that dwindles and then disappears. So for many people who want to see more mental health resources become available, it's important to keep up the energy around it.

What do you think the takeaway is from this reporting for ordinary Americans?

Seeing people talk publicly about their mental health struggles, and what they're doing to overcome that, can be important for people across the country and not just in Washington, particularly when it's somebody like a member of Congress coming out and admitting and acknowledging that they sought help because they needed help. I've seen that response already, even just since our stories aired, of people saying on social media, for example, "I was watching [the insurrection] at home and even I feel like I was impacted." People who weren't even in Washington were deeply disturbed by what they saw unfold on January 6. I do think that this story has a resonance with people across the country, and we've seen that in the response, which has been incredibly gratifying.

Do you feel like a sense of safety has been restored for those working in the Capitol?

It's tough to answer that with a blanket "yes" or "no." I can tell you, based on conversations my colleagues and I have had, that there are some people who still feel very anxious and stressed walking into work. Up until recently, there was huge fencing with barbed wire surrounding the Capitol—a very visceral reminder of what happened on the sixth. Much of that has come down now, except for right around the Capitol.

One of the young women that we spoke with was on the one hand feeling like, "It's what I do, I work, and that's how I can feel a little bit normal is to be able to go in and work and focus on my job." At the same time, however, when your workplace, the place that you always felt safe—"one of the safest buildings in the country" is a phrase we heard a lot while reporting this—when that is breached, it does have a lingering effect.

Watch more of Hallie Jackson’s reporting on “American Extremism” this week on MSNBC’s “Hallie Jackson Reports” at 10 a.m. ET. 

Need someone to just listen? You can contact the SAMHSA National Hotline at 1-800-662-4357 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

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