We have witnessed how the devastating after-effects of a school shooting can reverberate long after the immediate trauma. Recently, two survivors of the Parkland massacre of 2018 — a 19-year-old graduate named Sydney Aiello and an unnamed Parkland sophomore — both died in apparent suicides. And on March 25, Jeremy Richman, whose daughter Avielle was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, was also found dead in an apparent suicide.
This is not the first time we’ve seen the toll that experiencing the trauma of a school shooting can take; after the Columbine massacre of 1999 one student and the mother of a student who was severely wounded took their own lives. And as the Daily Beast reported, six students attempted suicide after a 2012 shooting in Ohio that left three schoolmates dead.
Aiello’s mom has said her daughter struggled with PTSD and suffered from “survivor’s guilt” after living through the deaths of her classmates. While school shootings have become an American epidemic, psychologists and experts in trauma are just beginning to gather data on how these events affect survivors and their communities in the long term. To find out what we do and don’t know about the mental-health effects of surviving a school shooting, we spoke to Amy Nitza, the director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Nitza’s work focuses on understanding the psychological implications of disasters such as school shootings.
What do you take away from it?
It’s a reminder of the level of devastation these events create and how debilitating the mental-health consequences are on people. At Sandy Hook, it has been six and a half years after the incident and so many mental-health resources that have been poured into that community, and yet there’s this level of suffering. These suicides are likely to have a really strong impact on other survivors. I think we can expect there to be a ripple effect in terms of triggering a resurgence of other people’s pain.
What do we know about the mental-health effects of school shootings?
School shootings have opened up a whole new set of questions. There’s all these sorts of questions around how best to protect kids from exposure to more trauma in the aftermath, because any reexposure to the setting, sights, sounds, or smells of the incident have the potential to become real triggers. For example: what kind of memorials do you do, and how many? Do you keep teddy bears and gifts people have sent on display? And how soon do you reopen the school? What’s the best way to help kids collect their belongings?
One of the parents of one of the women who died said that her daughter had been suffering from “survivor’s guilt,” which is a term that gets used colloquially. What do we know about that phenomenon from a psychological standpoint?
Survivor’s guilt by itself is not a diagnosis. it’s a phenomenon that occurs. Typically it involves the triggering of belief or a question about one’s worth and one’s value, as in why did I survive when other people did not, or why did I deserve to live and others didn’t? It can trigger these sort of deep existential questions that there aren’t really answers to. And wrestling with these questions become a really significant challenge cognitively and emotionally that can build on itself and create cognitive distortions.
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