How mass shootings affect (everyone else’s) mental health

It’s Sunday morning as I type this, the day after a bloody day in America. Unless you live under a rock, you know why.

20 dead in El Paso, Texas.

9 dead in Dayton, Ohio.

The elected official in me – indeed, the human – is outraged. 29 dead YESTERDAY ALONE in mass shootings because America refuses, collectively, to take the policy steps necessary to deal with these tragedies. To act on responsible violence-protection measures which could stop this bloodshed. To condemn white supremacy as a society and rid ourselves of it, root and branch. To adequately fund mental health initiatives which could save lives.

Our cowardice will condemn us all.

Alright. That’s not even the rage-fueled reason I’m writing today, although Lord knows that I could go on for hours about it, and that people much smarter and eloquent than me can and are doing the same. The reason I’m writing today was inspired by this tweet:

Two thoughts: First, this is beyond awful. Second, yes. How many of us have had similar thoughts? You’re just at the mall with family and friends, having a grand old time, and suddenly brought out of your pleasant state by wondering, “Hey, if there’s a shooting, what do I do?”

These thoughts are disturbing, intrusive, unpleasant, and slightly necessary. While the odds of any of us actual being involved in a mass shooting remain low (despite the rise in recent years), the possibility always exists, and it makes sense for all of us to be prepared and aware of the potential danger.

But society has now evolved to the point where, to an extent, we are all wondering about mass shootings. Every time I drop my kids off at school, I wonder about it. It’s in the back of my head, and depending on world events or my mood, it may be front and center. How many of you feel the same?

I would never claim that the pain of any of us not involved in a shooting like this is anywhere near the trauma of someone who was directly involved, so please don’t misunderstand. But, the elected official in me wants to make sure that we are clear about the damage that guns are doing to ALL OF US in society, and that they have changed the way we live in America to a constant state of fear and, as the tweet above puts it, a “low level anxiety.”

I can think of at least two broad and real examples. First, to those of us who are already prone to anxiety/stress and already likely thinking the worst, it gets your guard upon a near constant, low-level basis. It gives you a very real fear to focus on, and that, in turn, can pull you out of a sense of joy or relaxation you are feeling.

Second, and I’d say more damaging, is the impact these mass shootings has on kids. I was speaking with a group of guidance counselors a few weeks ago, and they were telling me how many students they speak with – on a regular basis – who are terrified that they will become a victim of a mass shooting. Again, as bad as things are in America, the odds of that happening are still low. However, the rise in shootings, the nature of our interconnected world and the ubiquity of technology magnify the odds of this occurring. This is particularly true for children or teenagers who don’t have the skills to know that the odds of this happening are still relatively slim. As a result, kids are scared to go to public, safe places – and this includes schools. What kind of damage will this have on them as they grow? As they attempt to learn or find safety and comfort?

We don’t have to live this way. And if we’re ever going to find the courage to actually not live this way, we have to acknowledge the impacts which gun violence has on every member of society, beyond those who are directly effected. The touches everyone of us.

 

The Parkland tragedy continues, as two survivors kill themselves

Originally, this entry focused on Sydney Aiello’s tragic suicide. I finished it early Sunday morning. And by Sunday afternoon, came to the tragic realization that it needed to be updated.

First: Parkland survivor Sydney Aiello died by suicide last week. The young teenager had survived the massacre at Stoneman Douglass High School, which claimed 17 lives.

According to Sydney’s mother, Sydney “struggled with survivor’s guilt and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in the year following the tragedy. And while she reportedly never asked for help, she struggled to attend college classes because she was scared of being in a classroom.”

Like all Stoneman students, Sydney was affected by the tragedy. Like far too many, she lost a friend:

Sydney Aiello & Meadow Pollack

Sydney lost her “longtime friend,” Meadow Pollack, in the shooting.

Next: The second victim. On Sunday afternoon, news broke that a second Parkland survivor had killed themselves. It was a sophomore male, and he, like Sydney, shot himself. As I type this entry, much is unknown about this student, including his name. Unfortunately, the notion of a suicide contagion effect is very, very real – and it is highly possible that this is what we are witnessing here.

The ugly truth is that a trauma never ends when the bullets stop firing. There are always long-term after effects. According to a 2018 survey:

  • Nearly 22% of people who had been raped had also attempted suicide at some point in their life.

  • Approximately 23% of people who had experienced a physical assault had also attempted suicide at some point in their life.

  • These rates of suicide attempts increased considerably among people who had experienced multiple incidents of sexual (42.9%) or physical assault (73.5%). They also found that a history of sexual molestation, physical abuse as a child, and neglect as a child were associated with high rates of suicide attempts (17.4% to 23.9%)

  • People with a diagnosis of PTSD are also at greater¬†risk¬†to attempt suicide. Among people who have had a diagnosis of PTSD at some point in their lifetime, approximately 27% have also attempted suicide.

There is no easy, glib solutions here, but there are ways to mitigate suicide risk after a traumatic event. The American Psychiatric Association lists a few helpful ways to deal with a traumatic event, including:

  1. Keeping informed but avoiding over-saturation with an event.
  2. Learning about local resources and sharing that information.
  3. Remembering that you are not alone and talking with family and friends about your experiences.
  4. Remembering that anxiety and depression after an event are normal, and seeking help if this continue or if you become overwhelmed.

There is, as always, a relatively standard thread here: If you endure a traumatic event, seek help. You are not alone, you are not weak or foolish, and you didn’t deserve whatever happened to you. Therapy – or even just talking to someone – can make a powerful difference.

I have a tendency with these blog entries to take smaller events and turn them into larger points. That’s a conscious decision informed by my experience with mental illness. But I want to conclude this entry by making sure we don’t lose sight of Sydney Aiello or the second student, name currently unknown.

It goes without saying: Sydney and others affected by Parkland didn’t deserve what happened to them. It’s a human tragedy. But Sydney and her classmates spent much of their time after the shooting advocating for a better world. I hope that some good comes of this tragedy, and I hope it is done, at least in part, in memory of Sydney, this second student, and all those affected by this tragedy.