Two teens who survived the shooting at Marjory Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were found dead in late March—a bit over a year since the event—with the cause of death being apparent suicide. Shortly after, a father of one of the 20 first-graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 died of apparent suicide.
This is terribly troubling news following the onslaught of tragedies that make up the rapid rise in school shootings throughout the country. While it’s important to mourn for the lives lost in these events, a hyper-focus on paying tribute to those who died could potentially lead survivors to various mental health conditions following the shooting—such as depression, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt—because they’re not giving proper attention to the severity of their own trauma.
In this article, we will discuss:
- What happened in Parkland/Newtown
- Symptoms of depression, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt
- How victims and others who are suffering can seek help
By understanding the victims’ stories and the degree of their trauma, others suffering from similar conditions can learn that it’s okay to ask for help and when they should be asking.
What’s happened in Parkland/Newtown since shootings
Two survivors of the Parkland shooting took their own lives in late March. One of these students was not identified by the police. The other student, 19-year-old Sydney Aiello, reportedly suffered from survivor’s guilt after the shooting, which followed from the death of close friend Meadow Pollack in the shooting. Aiello graduated from Stoneman Douglas in 2018. The other suicide victim was still a student at the school.
Shortly after, Jeremy Richman—the father of six-year-old Avielle, who was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre—was found dead from apparent suicide. Richman had started a foundation in his daughter’s name following the shooting, and those who worked with Richman there reported he struggled immensely after his daughter’s death. In 2017, Richman spoke with an NPR reporter, telling the reporter he still greatly missed his daughter and suffered from her loss daily. Richman described it as “like ghost limb syndrome,” which followed in the daily realization that “I don’t have a child, and I don’t have to parent,” an experience he described as “just brutal.”
Following these three suicides, a father of a victim in the Parkland shooting wrote a column for USA Today describing the difficulty in coping with these survivors' death. Ryan Petty, father of 14-year-old Alaina Petty, who was killed in the Parkland shooting, argued that the media focus and politicization of gun control issues overshadowed the mental recovery of victims and their families. These suicides, he said, were consequences of not receiving the mental health treatment they needed, on account of them trying to seem #MSDstrong.
Symptoms of the survivors
The first step in getting help following trauma like this is being able to recognize what someone is going through and that they do in fact need help. Here are some of the common conditions that affect survivors and the loved ones of those who have died.
Parkland victim Sydney Aiello suffered from survivor’s guilt following the shooting at her high school during her senior year. This condition can develop in those who have survived a life-threatening situation, particularly a mass shooting. Those suffering from survivor’s guilt question why they survived and their friends or family did not or that they didn’t do enough to save other people. Other known sufferers of survivor’s guilt include veterans, 9/11 survivors, and first responders.
Here are some of the symptoms of survivor’s guilt:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Flashbacks to the traumatic event
- Loss of motivation
- A sense of numbness
- Contemplating the meaning of life
This condition is common after one suffers a large-scale tragedy, such as the Holocaust or a school shooting, but survivor’s guilt happens after a car accident or similar event of smaller scale where the sufferer survived and others died. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop survivor’s guilt, but there are certain predispositions that can make someone more likely to suffer from the condition, such as:
- History of trauma
- Depression or other mood-related disorders
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of support
- Being of younger age, and therefore having less developed coping skills
At some point before her suicide, Sydney Aiello posted on social media: “asking for help is not a weakness.” She was certainly right.
Similar to Aiello, a survivor of the Colombine shooting suffered from survivor’s guilt for nearly a decade before seeking help. The survivor, Zach Cartaya, told NBC: “There is no comparison between physical and invisible wounds. But if you let yourself go down that road, I think it leads you to a really ugly place.”
Survivor’s guilt was originally given its own diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual up until the fourth edition, when it was categorized as a symptom of post-traumatic stress.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur in those who have undergone some form of serious trauma. Similarly to survivor’s guilt, sufferers of PTSD can include veterans and survivors of a serious accident. Here are some of the symptoms of PTSD:
- Reliving the event. This causes the survivor to experience a flashback of the trauma-inducing event and experience the same emotions again. There is sometimes a trigger for the person from external stimuli, but that is not always the case.
- Feeling numb. This is kind of a coping mechanism for the survivor, in which he makes himself feel nothing so as not to feel the pain and fear he felt with the trauma.
- Avoiding. This is when the survivor avoids situations with stimuli similar to that of the event.
- Negative thoughts. This causes the survivor to consistently think negatively of himself and others, with thoughts of self-deprecation and an unwillingness to trust others.
Symptoms of PTSD may begin immediately following the event, but they also may take weeks or months to set in and become an issue for the victim. This leeway can make it difficult to recognize if a victim is responding to the trauma in a healthy way or if there is something more serious going on. In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, a victim will have shown symptoms for at least a month, often times with symptoms persisting for multiple months.
The status of mental health following a traumatic events is certainly not one size-fits-all, and multiple conditions often overlap, especially PTSD and depression.
A study conducted by the University of Liverpool found that trauma is the leading cause of depression and anxiety. Here are some of the symptoms of depression following a traumatic event:
- Extreme sadness
- Feelings of loss and disillusionment
- Feeling numb
- Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
- Social withdrawal
- Crying frequently
- Intrusive memories and flashbacks
As is the case with PTSD and survivor’s guilt, there is no one-size-fits-all path to recovery for those who experience trauma. If you or a loved one are exhibiting symptoms for any of the conditions mentioned, treatment is highly advised.
How to get help
In his piece for USA Today, Ryan Petty of Parkland wrote: “the cacophony of voices on gun control drowned out and suppressed a needed conversation on the mental health needs at the school and in the community. For that failure, our community is paying a heavy price.”
As this article demonstrated, mental health issues following trauma are not exclusive to the survivors of the Parkland shooting. Survivor’s guilt, PTSD, depression, and similar mental health conditions can affect anyone suffering a trauma of any scale. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to seek help for yourself or a loved one who is suffering.
There are things you can do before seeking professional help that can help symptoms, such as regular self-care—relaxing activities, healthy diet and exercise, regular sleep—and getting support from those around you, whether that be your family or others who survived the same trauma.
When self-care isn’t enough
If PTSD, survivor’s guilt, or depression are completely inhibiting your daily life, you may want to seek help from a professional. Speaking with a therapist is often recommended for helping individuals deal with trauma and the symptoms that follow it. Furthermore, a professional may prescribe medication in the form of an antidepressant.
Another treatment route is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy, which is offered at Transformations. TMS therapy is a noninvasive, non-systemic treatment method where a magnetic coil sends pulses to the brain to target underactive areas associated with depression. The FDA approved TMS therapy for veterans—common sufferers of mental health problems following trauma. Speak to a physician at Transformations if you think TMS therapy may be a good fit for you.
The Parkland shooting and the events that followed were horrific and devastating. To help survivors of the events and the families of those who died, it’s important to encourage a focus on mental health to prevent tragedies like the suicides which occurred in March.
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, text HOME to 741741.
What other questions do you have about mental illness following a traumatic event? Let us know in the comments.