March 25, 2019 Three suicides in recent days by individuals directly affected by school shootings in the United States demonstrate that recovery efforts needed to restore communities are inadequate.
There are four phases of disaster management, including prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. The goal of recovery is resilience — restoring the community to its previous state. Mental health experts argue that is critical to ensure that victims feel connected to their communities in the aftermath of mass violence and have ongoing support available to them. When mental health support is provided, it is most often short term.
Last week, two Parkland School shooting survivors committed suicide. Both teens were students at Stoneman Douglas High School last year when a gunman opened fire inside the school, killing 17 and wounding seventeen others. On Monday morning, more tragic new—the father of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting committed suicide.
A spokesperson for the Newtown Police Department confirmed that Jeremy Richman, 49, was found dead in an apparent suicide at Edmond Town Hall, a movie theater and event space in Newtown, Connecticut at about 7 a.m. Monday morning. Richman was the father of Avielle Richman, one of the 20 children killed in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Following his daughter’s death, Jeremy Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, created the Avielle Foundation, a nonprofit focused on neuroscience research, with the goal of “exploring the underpinnings of the brain that lead to violent behaviors,” according to the foundation’s website. The foundation had an office in Edmond Town Hall, where Mr. Richman was found dead.
The Miami Herald reports that an unidentified male sophomore student died in “an apparent suicide” on Saturday night. Just six days earlier, Sydney Aiello, a recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduate committed suicide after being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sydney Aiello’s mother said her daughter suffered from survivor guilt after her best friend was killed in the shooting.
Recent studies found that human-caused disasters, especially intentional acts like school shootings are associated with more adverse mental health impacts than natural and technological disasters.
The American Psychological Association states that survivors of mass shootings have improved long-term outcomes when helped by the community and by having access to mental health support. University of California, Santa Barbara, assistant psychology professor Erika Felix, who led a study on the subject of mass shooting survivors, wrote in a statement:
“As a community psychologist, I’ve seen firsthand the importance of mental health promotion efforts that have nothing to do with counseling per se, but that help the community heal together.”
Steven Berkowitz, director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery, says in the aftermath of a shooting, the psychiatric fallout for survivors can be severe. Violent incidents like these, he says, “tend to have worse long-term outcomes than other types of traumatic experiences,” with emotional responses punctuated by anger, feelings of helplessness and an erosion of survivors’ sense of safety.
Mental health experts concur that for victims of intentional violences such as school shootings, it is important to understand there is no “one size fits all.”
A 2017 SAMHSA study on Mass Violence and Behavioral Health concluded:
“The most crucial point to emphasize here is that the reactions following mass violence as well as the interventions provided are not one size fits all—instead, they should be individualized and attuned to the culture of the people for whom they’re offered.”