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How county officials are handling mental health in the workplace after Virginia Beach shooting

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Many local government complexes across Central Virginia opened Monday for the first time since a mass shooting at the Virginia Beach municipal complex.

While two major localities said they would review safety procedures at their buildings, much of the focus was on making sure their employees and residents received support.

"We may never know why this happened, but as we go back to our daily routines it’s important to take our time and understand a senseless tragedy, such as what has occurred in Virginia Beach, can have an enormous effect of undermining our own feelings of safety and security,” Chesterfield County Administrator Dr. Joe Casey wrote in a message to county employees. "If anyone is experiencing this, I want to let you know, you’re not alone. It’s understandable if anyone is feeling stressed or anxious as they return to work.”

Dr. Casey said grief and anxiety can manifest itself differently for different people, so he urged county workers to contact the county’s Employee Assistance Program if they wanted to talk to a professional about what happened in Virginia Beach.

“Every employee has different anxiety levels, different stress, and there is no right or wrong to it. So that’s the first thing you tell an employee. And the other thing is, you tell the employee if you need to talk about it, whether it’s in groups, whether it’s one to one, whether it’s confidentially, whether it’s an 800 number throughout employee assistance program. Please reach out to those things,” Dr. Casey said.

Dr. Amy Cashwell is nearing the end of her first year as Henrico County Schools Superintendent, but around this time last year, she worked as an administrator for Virginia Beach Public Schools.

"I certainly it had on my mind that if I was thinking about the incident then a number of our families and students were thinking about the incident. It hits close to home,” Dr. Cashwell said.

Dr. Cashwell urged students and teachers to wear blue Monday in honor of the victims in Virginia Beach, but she also made sure county teachers were ready to have difficult conversations with students who may have read about the mass shooting not far from home.

“While some it may be heavy on their minds, others it may dawn on them months or weeks from now and cause anxiety. So we make sure our teachers are well trained and prepared to have those important conversations,” Dr. Cashwell said.

Since each student also handles anxiety differently, Dr. Cashwell said teachers and parents should be prepared to have those same conversations farther down the road as the gravity and context of the Virginia Beach tragedy settles in for young people.

Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkaus wrote to county employees Monday that public safety and mental health professionals will be conducting site assessments in many government buildings in the coming days and weeks.

Dr. Casey said he met with leaders in most Chesterfield County departments to begin reviewing safety procedures. Before the Friday shooting, Chesterfield officials were scheduled to review their workplace safety policy on Wednesday.

“It’s a policy that’s been around for a while. It’s not a policy that you sit on the shelf and collect dust.” Dr. Casey said. “We can add another lens of perspective to it as we go through the review, the update. The policy is more than just words. It’s how we do drills, how we train employees, how you make an awareness to the citizen.”

The shooter in Virginia Beach was a 15-year employee of Virginia Beach who had submitted a resignation letter only hours before the shooting. Dr. Casey said workplace violence, unfortunately, does not discriminate by location, so they urge county managers to promote an atmosphere where co-workers check in on one another.

“A great team is one where your teammate can also recognize what might be wrong, and say I have it for you today, I got you today, I got you covered. Now you go and try and take care of yourself,” Dr. Casey said.

Chesterfield officials also plan to honor the victims in Virginia Beach.

At a ceremony tentatively scheduled for Friday, the county plans to ring their historic bell 12 times.

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