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News brief: Uvalde police response, Colombia election, pandemic mental illness

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The police in Uvalde, Texas, admit that they made mistakes in responding to the mass shooting last week. And now the Department of Justice is investigating.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And for the second time in as many weeks, President Biden tried to comfort a community devastated by a mass shooting. He was in Texas yesterday with the first lady. They met with families of the victims of the attack on Robb Elementary School that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

MARTIN: NPR's Pien Huang is in Uvalde and joins us this morning. Pien, there's been so much confusion over exactly what happened on that day, and now the Justice Department is involved. Tell us what's going on.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Yeah, there's a lot of anger from the community, a lot of questions over how law enforcement responded to the shooting. You know, at first, Texas Governor Greg Abbott had praised a quick response for saving children's lives. Then the Texas Department of Public Safety later reported that 19 policemen failed to enter the classroom for the better part of an hour. Now the Justice Department says they're launching their own independent probe into the law enforcement response. It's been requested by the mayor of Uvalde, who's been asked to hold law enforcement accountable. DOJ says their goals here are to explain what happened in Uvalde and how law enforcement can avoid these mistakes in the next active shooter situation. There's no clear time frame for the investigation, but they have pledged to make the results public.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, this community is getting ready to hold funeral services for the victims, which is very grim work to say the least.

HUANG: Mmm hmm. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, next to one of Uvalde's two funeral homes, the florist there is working nonstop to prepare wreaths and arrangements. Kelly Baker is owner of The Flower Patch.

KELLY BAKER: Some days are harder than others, especially when you're sitting with families that you've grown up with. It's so hard because they're coming to you to do something very personal for them.

HUANG: The other day, Baker sat with a high school classmate who had lost a child in the shooting.

BAKER: Their baby's favorite was sunflowers. As we start making these arrangements, we're just going to make sure and save sunflowers for this baby so that, you know, her family gets just a tiny bit of what she wanted or what she would have wanted for her service.

HUANG: Services for the victims start today with visitation for 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza, who had celebrated her birthday earlier this month. And over the next 2 1/2 weeks, the community will put 18 more children and two more teachers to rest.

MARTIN: President Biden and the first lady were there yesterday. If you could distill that visit down to an image or two, what would they be?

HUANG: Well, the president and first lady spent a full day here in Uvalde yesterday. They placed white flowers at a memorial site at Robb Elementary School, where white crosses bore the names of the dead. At one point, the president wiped away a tear. The Bidens then attended Sunday morning mass, along with 600 parishioners at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and those that were there told us he was just there to pray. Outside, a small crowd had gathered in the 93-degree heat. Linda Casas had driven in from San Antonio.

LINDA CASAS: I'm not a parent. I have nieces and nephews - 10, 5, 6. And I don't know. It just hit me for some reason. I said - I woke up this morning, and I said, you know what? I got to go.

MARTIN: And how was he received? I mean, was it all universally warm?

HUANG: Well, some people we spoke with were grateful that the president came to visit and show solidarity and support. But as Biden exited the church, an onlooker did shout, do something, and Biden did say, we will.

MARTIN: NPR's Pien Huang in Uvalde, Texas. Thank you.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Heading now to Colombia, where a former left-wing guerrilla and a populist real estate mogul are headed for a presidential runoff on June 19.

FADEL: Now, the pair of anti-establishment candidates were the top vote-getters in the country's presidential election yesterday. It's a rebuttal of the ruling class, which is predominantly conservative.

MARTIN: Reporter John Otis joins us from Bogota. Hey, John.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: How's it going?

MARTIN: It goes well. What do we know about these two candidates?

OTIS: Well, they're both quite unorthodox. In first place yesterday was Gustavo Petro with 40% of the vote. He's a former left-wing guerrilla who later served in Congress and as the mayor of Bogota, and he's now on his third run for the presidency. And Petro's promised some pretty big changes here. He wants to phase out the production of oil, which is Colombia's biggest export. He wants to raise taxes on the rich to fund anti-poverty programs. And he also plans to reestablish diplomatic relations with the authoritarian regime next door in Venezuela. So all of this has Colombia's business leaders and social elites on edge.

MARTIN: He came in first, but he didn't win an outright victory, right? What happened?

OTIS: In Colombia, unlike the U.S., you need to win more than half the votes to avoid going to a runoff, and that didn't happen. Rodolfo Hernandez was runner-up with 28% of the vote. And he's a really colorful character. He made his fortune in real estate. He went on to become mayor of the northern city of Bucaramanga. And ideologically, he's just all over the map. He's pro-business, but, for example, he also supports abortion rights and legalizing marijuana. His main claim to fame as mayor was getting caught on video slapping a city councilman in the face in an argument over corruption.

MARTIN: Whoa.

OTIS: He's 77. And he's also prone to gaffes. On one occasion, he praised Adolf Hitler when he meant to say Albert Einstein. He's skipped candidate debates. He's conducted most of his campaign on TikTok videos. And he even granted a TV interview in his pajamas.

MARTIN: OK, so he's a colorful character, but what's the political appeal? What's the appeal of his platform to voters?

OTIS: Well, Hernandez appeals to Colombians who are sick of political corruption and business as usual. He plays up this image of himself as this kind of gruff and foul-mouthed anti-corruption crusader. Again, Hernandez made millions in real estate, which in Colombia is an area riddled with corruption. His campaign is self-financed. So he claims that if he wins the presidency, he's not going to owe anybody. But he also faces graft accusations from his time as mayor, and that case is set to go to trial in July.

MARTIN: So the next president is either going to be this real estate developer or this former left-wing guerrilla. I mean, these are political outsiders either way, and that's a big deal, right?

OTIS: Yeah. You know, in Colombia, the winning candidates have always come from centrist or conservative political parties, and neither of the current candidates - not Gustavo Petro, not Rodolfo Hernandez - fits this bill. But Colombians have become really frustrated by political scandals and rising poverty. COVID-19 drove up poverty from 35 to 42% of the population and triggered that protest last year. So this time around, Colombians really seem ready for something completely different.

MARTIN: And it's going to be a tight race in that runoff. John Otis reporting from Bogota. Thank you so much, John.

OTIS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: More than 1 in 20 Americans experienced serious mental illness, and this was before the pandemic.

FADEL: For some people struggling with these kinds of health issues, the masking, lockdowns and misinformation made it harder to distinguish reality from delusion.

MARTIN: NPR's Yuki Noguchi has been looking into this, and she joins me now. Hey, Yuki.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. I think it's probably prudent, before we really start talking, to just define what we mean when we say serious mental illness.

NOGUCHI: Yeah, experts say a core part of it involves psychosis, you know, a loss of touch with reality. And this can happen with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, which affect about 5% of the population.

MARTIN: OK. So how did COVID affect people who have serious mental illness?

NOGUCHI: Well, physically, people with schizophrenia are more likely to contract COVID and also to die from it. But as far as mental health, there's not much data. In talking to researchers and doctors, a lot seems to depend on a person's circumstance - you know, whether they had housing, family, jobs or access to health care. Those were already challenging for many people because these illnesses often strike young adults and, therefore, interrupt school, careers or dating. So they already faced high rates of isolation and poverty pre-pandemic. On the other hand, people with serious mental illness also told me that dealing with crisis is just old hat to them.

MARTIN: So, I mean, that might be just part of life when you're suffering from serious mental illness. But did they describe how this particular crisis of the pandemic affected them?

NOGUCHI: Well, I'll give you an example of a Boston man named Peter (ph). He grew up in Romania in the 1980s under the brutal Ceausescu regime. There was constant government surveillance, so a certain amount of paranoia was a survival skill. But to this day, fear causes epileptic seizures and blackouts for Peter. The pandemic made it hard to know what to believe.

PETER: Seeing people wearing masks, I was thinking that they're trying to protect themselves from the invasive cameras that are posted all throughout the city, all throughout the subway.

NOGUCHI: Misinformation about COVID and vaccines made reality feel even slipperier. Social media seemed to control political discourse. And all this validated his fears.

PETER: If I read the news, which I do every day, I feel like I'm not ill. But then, of course, I read my diagnosis, and it tells me right there that I'm schizophrenic, that I might have paranoid delusions. So I don't know.

NOGUCHI: Reality felt delusional sometimes, right?

MARTIN: Right, yeah. So what did he do? How did he get through it?

NOGUCHI: Well, Peter says crisis is familiar to him. He knows how to handle it. He takes long walks and meditation, and that helps. Benjamin Druss, a public health professor at Emory University, says he hears that kind of thing a lot.

BENJAMIN DRUSS: They've proved to be pretty resilient. Many of the coping mechanisms that people have developed they're able to put into good use when an enormous stressor like COVID hits.

NOGUCHI: He says, of course, telehealth helped, at least if you have an internet connection. But joblessness, homelessness and social isolation are unfortunately common among people with serious mental illness. That represents a lot of the patients Hannah Brown sees. She's a psychiatry professor at Boston Medical Center and works in the ER. She says patients were more acute and required longer hospital stays, 2 to 3 times longer than pre-pandemic.

HANNAH BROWN: It speaks to the severity of the disease worsening over the past two years, like, significantly worsening.

NOGUCHI: So, Rachel, you know, how much social support people had was a huge determinant of how they did.

MARTIN: Yeah. I can imagine. NPR's Yuki Noguchi. We appreciate your reporting on this. Thank you.

NOGUCHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.