Three Survivor Suicides In One Week Needs To Be Enough To Start The Conversation About Mental Health Resources (Or A Lack Thereof)

We have just passed the one-year mark of the painstaking attacks on children and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that took place on February 14, 2018. With the arrival of this dreaded milestone, we are also burdened with the news of two survivors of the tragedy recently passing away, as well as one of the fathers of a victim from the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.

Sydney Aiello, 19, who graduated from MSDHS and survived the 2018 attack, took her own life on March 17, 2019. Aiello’s mother says that she was suffering terribly from survivor’s guilt and that she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.  Image result for sydney aiello

Sydney Aiello, 19, protesting after the shooting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (left) and posing for a picture outside (right).

 

Aiello lost her close friend, Meadow Pollack, during the shooting at her high school and had apparently been very sad ever since the event, but according to her mother, she had never been suicidal, nor did she ever ask for help before killing herself.

According to her mother, Aiello had tried moving on with her life and enrolled in college courses, but was struggling a great deal because of her PTSD. She was scared to be in a classroom setting and it negatively affected her ability to succeed in her college courses.

Image result for sydney aiello and meadow pollack

Sydney Aiello (right) with her close friend Meadow Pollack (left) who was killed in the 2018 school shooting.

 

To make matters worse, less than a week after Aiello took her life, Florida police are investigating the death of yet another student who survived this massacre (no name has been released yet), who was a freshman at the high school during the time of the shooting. Coroners are still investigating the student’s cause of death, but are currently ruling it as an ‘apparent suicide.’

“It breaks my heart that we’ve lost yet another student from Stoneman Douglas,” said Ryan Petty, the father of Alina Perry, who was one of the 17 victims killed in the 2018 shooting, to CBS 4 Miami, “My advice to parents is to ask questions, don’t wait.”

When it comes to gun violence, the sad news never seems to end. On March 25, just days after the death of Sydney Aiello, Jerry Richman took his own life in his office building in Connecticut. Richman was the father of 6-year-old Avielle Richman, a young girl among the 20 other elementary school students and six adults killed during the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

 

Jeremy Richman (left) with his wife, Jennifer Hensel, and 6-year-old daughter, Avielle Richman, who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.

 

Richman was a neuroscientist who founded The Avielle Foundation, a nonprofit organization in honor of his late daughter. He dedicated his work to “supporting research into brain abnormalities that are linked to abnormal behavior and to promoting brain health,” as said on his foundation’s website. Richman says his nonprofit focuses on averting violence through research and community engagement. The Avielle Foundation will continue to live on, now in loving memory of Avielle and Jerry Richman.

This marks the third suicide in a week linked to the survivors of mass shootings in our country. This goes to show that just because a mass shooting may only last for a few minutes, the effects and the aftermath of these events never discriminate on the basis of time, age, race, gender or anything else. These events never actually end—one year, even seven years after the fact, even after the culprit is dead in some cases, these events are still claiming victims.

Photo from the March For Our Lives, Washington D.C., March 24, 2018.

 

We continuously talk about gun control and mass shootings, but we never seem to have the conversation about what happens after the fact—what happens to the survivors? These people have to live with this memory for the rest of their lives—tragedy doesn’t go away just because the media stops covering it, in fact, when the attention has gone is when the tragedy reaches its peak for a second time, and when people need the most support, because any shock factor that may have resonated has retreated. For instance, while the Parkland community is trying to heal, and have been provided with basic mental health resources by the city and local practices, survivors and community members continuously shame these resources, claiming they are not helpful and do not fully grasp or understand the trauma they went through (which was to be expected considering this was an extreme and rare circumstance). The evidence to these claims can be seen in the recent suicides of survivors and family members of survivors like Sydney Aiello, Jeremy Richman and the unnamed Parkland survivor.

The disappointment from the survivors and families of these vicious attacks should be enough to understand that the resources we have in place are not extensive enough, not helpful enough and not tailored correctly for these people. They have suffered through great tragedy and lived through events that most people could not imagine going through, and yet the resources we as a society have created for them to help them through their healing process are just not cutting it. These are fragile mental health states that seem to be getting little attention.

"Simply by definition, mass shootings are more likely to trigger difficulties with beliefs that most of us have, including that we live in a just world and that if we make good decisions, we'll be safe," said Laura Wilson, Ph.D., co-author and editor of "The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings" and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The effects on those who are not able to find good support or help following these events are left at the hands of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and in some cases, substance abuse. These can be especially hard to overcome because of the types of places in which these shootings have and can occur: schools, churches, concerts, clubs and more. These are all very public and supposedly ‘safe’ environments that are frequently and consistently visited by people, which makes it harder to be able to go anywhere with this kind of trauma on your shoulder.

Currently, modern science and medicine continue to work to find better solutions for the victims and families of these horrific events, but we are still far from a common denominator. Organizations like the National Center for PTSD, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and APA’s Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of PTSD are among the efforts of change for this movement. However, we still have a long way to go before we are able to confidently say we have a solid system for treating mental illness—especially in extreme cases such as PTSD, depression and anxiety from massing shootings.

Through continued medical research, maybe a girl like Aiello would eventually be able to sit in a classroom without the fear of someone running in and killing her and her classmates. Maybe Richman could have healed after the seven years since his daughter was taken from him, and continued his own research and work into the uncovering and prevention of violence. Maybe the other unnamed survivor from Parkland who decided that death was a better outlet for internal peace than recovery could have continued their life and gone on to conquer the world—but now, we’ll never know.

Having attended the March For Our Lives in March of 2018 following these horrific events, and experiencing such deep, gut-wrenching emotions from the survivors and other attendants, this news is heartbreaking. Stay active and stay involved—we cannot let tragedies like these keep happening in such high numbers. People—especially these young students—do not deserve to be carrying burdens like this at such a young age, or ever.

Here are a few links to GoFundMe accounts to support the families of the victims and their efforts to recover: