A pair of recent suicide deaths in Parkland, Fla., serve as a stark reminder of the lingering effects of trauma — and underscore the importance of providing long-term support to those who are living with its consequences.
Just days after 19-year-old Sydney Aiello, who survived the mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, died by suicide, police confirmed that an unnamed current student at the high school had also died by “apparent suicide.” Police did not release details about the second Parkland student’s death or say whether they were enrolled at the school during last year’s rampage, but Aiello’s family has spoken openly about the survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) they say she suffered after the tragedy — highlighting the lasting consequences of mass traumas that have become all too common.
Mental health experts and school district leaders, who convened an emergency meeting in Parkland on Sunday to address suicide prevention, have urged parents to talk to their children and identify signs of crisis, using questions from the Columbia Protocol to ask about thoughts of suicide.
It’s crucial that parents and educators start conversations like these to support teenagers long after traumatic events are over, says Maureen Brogan, statewide coordinator for New Jersey’s Traumatic Loss Coalition for Youth, a youth suicide prevention program out of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. That’s because such events can contribute to or exacerbate long-lasting mental health issues, Brogan says.
“Do they have a social support system? Are they surrounded by people who understand that they’re going through a tough time and are patient with that?” Brogan says. “Help-seeking behavior is really encouraging people to reach out for help, whether it’s talking to a trusted adult,” going to therapy or finding support in a faith-based or community organization.
Parents and teachers also shouldn’t shy away from speaking to young people who they’re concerned about, Brogan says — even if that means asking hard questions about suicide and mental health. “We kind of dance around it, which is not the healthiest thing. Unwittingly, we’re sending the message of, ‘I can’t hear it or I don’t want to hear it,’” Brogan says. “You’re not going to plant the idea [of suicide] if they’re not having those thoughts, but you’re now opening the door to have the conversation” if they are at risk.
Joel Dvoskin, a psychologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, says it can also be helpful for parents to be upfront about their own fears if they’re concerned about their teenager’s behavior. “It’s fine to say, ‘I’m scared for you. I’m worried for you,’” Dvoskin says. Kids — even those who are reluctant to label themselves as depressed, anxious or suicidal — may find it easier to respond to that kind of language, Dvoskin says. It’s also helpful not to “pathologize” negative emotions, and instead focus on having open conversations with teenagers, he says.
Stoneman Douglas teacher Diane Wolk-Rogers, who completed a two-day suicide prevention training last summer, says she has been checking in with students by text while she’s away during spring break this week, telling them they can call her cell phone anytime. “We are just so beyond devastated,” she says, recalling last year’s 17 shooting deaths and the two recent suicides. “Every time I look up at the clouds, I just see the number 19. It’s horrifying, and you just wonder, is it going to stop there?”
Wolk-Rogers is one of many Stoneman Douglas teachers who have taken on unofficial roles as therapists for students who might be reluctant to seek out formal mental health counseling. She started a mind-body club in the fall to help students cope with anxiety and depression. She has told students they can find her on Friday at one of the resiliency centers in Broward County, where students or parents can meet with clinicians and participate in support groups throughout the week.
“We are the grown ups,” Wolk-Rogers says. “We have to take care of our kids.”
Some Florida leaders have also called for more state and federal funding for mental health resources. Jared Moskowitz, director of Florida’s emergency management division, said in a tweet on Sunday that “mental health is a bipartisan issue,” while Florida state Rep. Shevrin Jones offered to sponsor mental health legislation. “This issue cannot wait,” he tweeted. “Let’s act while we are in session. We can do this, Florida.”
Suicide rates in the U.S. have risen substantially over the past 20 years in general, but young people have seen particularly drastic increases in rates of depression, anxiety, psychological distress and suicidal thinking and behavior, according to recent research. Between 2010 and 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded a 70% increase in deaths by suicide among girls ages 10 to 19; between 2007 and 2016, suicide deaths among boys of the same ages increased by 44%, according to CDC data. All told, 436 kids ages 10 to 14 died by suicide in 2016, as did more than 5,700 people ages 15 to 24, making it the second-leading cause of death in both age groups.
Suicide is complex, and almost never has one single cause. But research has shown that exposure to traumatic events can increase an individual’s risk of suicidal ideation and behavior, as can PTSD. Other suicides even fall into this category. Direct or indirect exposure to deaths by suicide may increase the risk of suicidal behavior among vulnerable individuals, through the phenomenon of “suicide contagion.”
There’s not much research on the link between school shootings and suicide, specifically, but Brogan says any type of traumatic event can lead to a “breakdown in coping skills,” particularly for young people who are going through periods of intense physical, mental and emotional change as it is. The problem is not limited to young people, though. On Monday, the father of a young girl who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was also found dead by an apparent suicide.
Trauma “can start to change your worldview, especially for young people,” Brogan says. “You start to see a little more anxiety, a little more of the depression — where, had there not been a trauma, they very well may have been able to manage it.”
Listening to and showing compassion for teenagers who are struggling is a good first step for parents and teachers, Brogan says. But she says adults should go into tough conversations ready to connect young people to other resources, such as support groups, crisis hotlines or nearby mental health professionals, if necessary.
“Sharing these resources with people does two things: One, it can connect them to more help,” she says. “But also, two, it validates that you’re not in this by yourself. Other people are struggling with things as well.”
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.