Waukesha 'Night of Lights,' parade hope to offer community healing

Two Christmas-themed events are expected to draw big crowds to downtown Waukesha this weekend.

Those events will undoubtedly stir painful memories of last year's parade attack – the darkest day in Waukesha's history – but the city is taking steps to ease anxiety.

"People heal at different times, we have physical injuries, emotional injuries, and people who lost loved ones," said Mayor Shawn Reilly.

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Reilly planned "Night of Lights" for Friday, Dec. 2 knowing not everyone will feel comfortable returning to downtown.

"The lights are not on Main Street. They are on the River Walk," he said.

Waukesha "Night of Lights"

The event starts with the lighting of the city's Christmas tree, and follows Santa Claus caroling past several downtown businesses. It ends in a warm holiday glow along the Fox River.

"Obviously, there are going to be memories – that is always difficult to handle. Just acknowledge that difficulty and sadness is there," said Dr. Sharon Hirsch, a psychiatrist at Rogers Behavioral Health.

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Hirsch said Sunday's parade will be hard for a lot of people. The route will once again span Main Street. Hirsch said families should have a plan before they get downtown. 

"If you do get triggered, what are you going to do? Take a deep breath, talk to somebody," she said.

Waukesha "Night of Lights" route

Healing Hearts of Wisconsin will be at the parade to provide support and resources. The group specializes in supporting grieving children and their families. City leaders said the parade will be safe and, hopefully, healing.

"Some people may not be able to return to the parade and maybe this year it’s not appropriate for them," said Hirsch. "I can assure you we are doing everything in public safety to make it as safe and comfortable as possible."

Waukesha police will have additional security at Sunday's parade. The Chamber of Commerce organizes the parade, and a spokeswoman told FOX6 News on Monday that it could be the largest attendance for any parade in the city's history.

Waukesha "Night of Lights"

Coping with trauma

Returning to downtown Waukesha for holiday events can trigger mental health issues. Rogers Behavioral Health has tips on how to cope:

Survivors can suffer long-term emotional trauma. In response to disaster anniversary events, people who struggle with reactions to a traumatic event – whether PTSD, depression, anxiety, or substance use – tend to have a surge in symptoms.

A 2012 Princeton University study found that even five years after Hurricane Katrina, survivors still experience mental health challenges.

It’s important for survivors and others involved to be aware of their moods and take care of their mental health. Ways to cope include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Mediating
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Listening to calming music or sounds
  • Finding someone to talk to – whether it’s a therapist, family member or friend

Symptoms of trauma vary greatly by person. A person who has experienced trauma may develop depression, substance use disorder, or PTSD – which includes feeling depressed and anxious for an extended period of time, as well as:

  • Experiencing recurrent frightening dreams or intense emotions about the event
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Avoiding places, people or memories that relate to the event

The symptoms of trauma or PTSD are different for each individual based on the specific experience, but can include:

  • Scanning for danger in safe situations
  • Experiencing irritability, anger or aggression
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Recurrent nightmares or flashbacks of the event, feeling as though the life-threatening situation is present again
  • Typically, avoiding places, people, activities, or objects that are reminders of the event
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tending not to go out in public
  • Feeling depressed and alone
  • Engaging in risky behaviors such as substance use, gambling, driving fast, etc.

How common is PTSD?

  • More than 8 million Americans between the age of 18 and older have PTSD
  • 3.6% of the U.S. adult population experience PTSD in the past year
  • 67% of people exposed to mass violence have been shown to develop PTSD, a higher rate than those exposed to natural disasters or other types of traumatic events
  • People who have experienced previous traumatic events run a higher risk of developing PTSD

Trauma treatment

  • PTSD can be treated at Rogers Behavioral Health in residential careinpatient care, and specialized outpatient treatment – such as partial hospitalization programs (PHP) and intensive outpatient treatment (IOP)
  • Evidence-based treatment is most effective for trauma recovery
  • Rogers uses this model for all patients with methods that have been proven to provide relief for a patient’s symptoms
  • Visit rogersbh.org to learn more and to take a free screening
  • Rogersbh.org/resources also has fact sheets, blogs, videos and more