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What to Keep in Mind Following the Recent Suicides of School Shooting Survivors

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

On Monday, news broke that Dr. Jeremy Richman, a father devoted to preventing school shootings, had died by apparent suicide. Richman was the father of 6-year-old Avielle Richman, who was among the 26 people who lost their lives in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. Richman was 49.

His apparent suicide was the third this past week related to school shootings. Parkland shooting survivor Sydney Aiello died on March 17, and a second, unnamed Parkland survivor died this past Saturday.

If the past week was heavy for you, you’re not alone. Below, we’ve broken down three things to keep in mind in the wake of this difficult news.

Before we begin, we want to preface by saying if you’re struggling with your mental health because of the news, please take a step back and give yourself the space you need. If you need immediate support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Here are three things to keep in mind following the recent suicides:

1. We need to talk about the link between trauma and suicide.

There is very little research on the impact trauma has on suicidal ideation — and even less on the impact school shooting-related trauma has on suicidal thoughts.

In a study on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) risk following mass violence, researchers found that about 42 percent of study participants reported high rates of post-traumatic stress symptoms shortly after the school shooting studied. Approximately 12 percent met criteria for persistent PTSD.

This school shooting study did not measure suicidal thoughts, but in a small study on PTSD and suicidal thoughts in civilian patients, researchers found that about 38 percent of participants reported experiencing suicidal ideation and 9.6 percent had attempted suicide since the trauma they experienced.

It’s clear from the recent suicides that we need to do more to understand the link between trauma and suicidal thinking. According to Aiello’s mother, Aiello struggled with “survivor’s guilt” after the Parkland shooting and had been diagnosed with PTSD before her death.

On Twitter, fellow Parkland shooting survivor turned gun control activist David Hogg tweeted about the reality of what it’s like to walk through life after surviving trauma and loss. He wrote:

Stop saying ‘you’ll get over it.’ You don’t get over something that never should have happened because those that die from gun violence are stolen from us not naturally lost. Trauma and loss don’t just go away, you have to learn to live with it through getting support.

We must prioritize research that supports people struggling with suicidal thoughts in the wake of mass violence. For many survivors, the impact of trauma isn’t confined to just the event, it can linger and affect mental health for a long time after.

2. School shootings don’t just affect the people directly involved — they affect communities.

Richman’s apparent suicide reminds us that trauma can affect communities in a big way. Though Richman wasn’t a Parkland shooting survivor, as someone who lived through the death of his own daughter in a different school shooting, hearing news of the recent suicides may have been especially triggering.

Trauma after a shooting isn’t just confined to the people directly involved. Seeing mass violence in the news can affect the mental health of whole communities — and even an entire nation.

In the wake of news like this, there is often much talk about a phenomenon called “suicide contagion.” According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, suicide contagion refers to an exposure to suicide via media reports or word of mouth in one’s family or community that can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors.

There are things we can all do to support community healing in the wake of news like this. One of the most important things we can do (especially online) is avoid sharing articles that don’t follow the media guidelines for reporting responsibly on suicide. Another is adjusting our language when we talk about suicide.

Check out our suggestions below:

3. If you are thinking about suicide, you’re not alone and there is help available.

The good news is there is hope for healing. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), simply making sure victims of mass violence are aware of support and resources available to them — even if they never use them — can help.

Virginia Tech massacre survivor and Mighty contributor Lisa Hamp shared a message for anyone struggling in the aftermath of the shooting. She wrote:

To those impacted by the shooting, you may feel a rush of overwhelming feelings as you reflect on the past year and look ahead to next. Tragic flashbacks may run through your head, and it might seem impossible to get away from your emotions. Outside pressure for what you will do or how you will mark the day may be overwhelming. Pause. Breathe, and breathe again. These feelings are normal. If you wait a little longer and focus on your breathing, the uncomfortable emotions will eventually pass.

As you continue your recovery journeys, I send my thoughts, prayers and a few words of advice from a fellow survivor: Don’t compare your experiences. Make self-care a priority. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. And remember, breathe.

Lastly, if you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

You are never alone, even when things feel dark and out of your control. For more resources, check out the following stories:

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Originally published: March 25, 2019
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