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.

Depression, Parkland and its affect on us all

Like many of you – okay, probably all of you – the events of at Majority Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this month took my breath away.  There’s simply no other way to say it.  Watching those children weep, their parents weep, their families in anguish – you have to be born without an empathetic bone in your body not to feel their pain and be willing to do almost anything to ease the suffering of those affected.

I’d argue I spent a good two days feeling depressed, having struggle concentrating, and with an enhanced sense of anxiety.  I have a six and a five year old, and every time I drop them off at school, that thought is always in the back of my head.

Please understand, of course, that I don’t want discuss Parkland from the perspective of “Oh, poor little me, so sad.”  I’m using the recent tragedy in Florida to discuss a much broader issue and how it affects people with mental health challenges to begin with.  Again, I come back to The Lost Connections, the book that I read a few weeks ago and reviewed in a recent blog entry.

One of the central points of the book was this: We live in a sick world, where we are bombarded with threats on a daily basis.  And, watching Parkland, I was reminded of the accuracy of this theory.  As noted by Dr. Graham Davey in this Huffington post article:

“Negative news can significantly change an individual’s mood — especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasize suffering and also the emotional components of the story. In particular… negative news can affect your own personal worries. Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.”

The article goes on to note that negative news DOES make us more depressed, leads to more negativity towards the environment in general, and in extreme cases, can lead to PTSD-like symptoms.

Sort of related observation here: Don’t you feel better when you put your phone down and pull away from the world?  And, is that the answer?

No, it can’t be.  Painful as this planet can be sometimes, pulling away from it cannot be the way that we cope with it, at least in the long-term.  I refuse to believe that, because if that’s what happens, this world will collapse.  But, limiting our exposure has to be a necessary thing sometimes.  And that leads me to my next observation: Sometimes, it’s okay to put your phone down, put the TV down, and read a book.  Play video games.  Stare out the damn window.  Honestly, what you do is irrelevant – but what IS relevant is that you do take time for yourself and away from the world.

I’d also say this: The world gets scary when we feel powerless.  So, don’t view world events from that perspective.  If you truly feel powerless, reassert your power. Find an issue you care about, and attack it.  Make the world a better place by pledging to make a difference on a small problem.  In the case of the tragedy at Parkland, it can be something small, like writing your legislator and asking for gun control, or something large, like organizing a group dedicated to making a difference.

Whatever you do, reassert your power; as a state legislator, that’s been part of how I cope with the world today.  We are not lemmings on this world.  We aren’t sheep to be lead to the slaughter.  This is our world, dammit, and the best way to make it a better place is to shape it to be the place you want it to be.

OP-ED: Massacres, gun safety & mental health

The Morning Call, which is my local newspaper, recently published this op-ed that I wrote, following up on the Parkland massacre.  I’m publishing it here because it does touch on mental health, but specifically from the perspective of violence and publish policy.  First, remember, someone who is mentally ill is far more likely to be the victim of violence, rather than the perpetrator.  Second, I’m tired of hearing about, in the aftermath of these shootings, how we must repair our mental health system and then the only things that are done is funding cuts.

Anyway, read on for more.  I hope you find this useful

Seventeen dead students and teachers.

Fifty-eight dead concert goers.

Forty-nine dead club attendees.

Twenty-seven dead students and teachers.

These are some of the worst gun massacres in the history of the United States. And they have all occurred within the past five years.

We have reached the point in our society where kindergarteners are being trained how to cower in the event that an armed gunman barges in on their class. Teachers are now being lauded for laying down their lives for their students. There is serious conversation about whether or not school staff, including administrators, teachers and janitors, should walk around school with guns locked and loaded.

We have hit this low point in our society. But we aren’t powerless. We aren’t lambs being led to the slaughter. We are the United States of America. The country that beat the Nazis can surely be the country that stops senseless bloodshed in sacred public places.

We need real gun safety, and we need it now.

•First: Reinstate the assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994-2004. It is harder for a 19-year-old to purchase Sudafed than an assault weapon. More to the point, the 1994 ban worked. According to one analysis, gun massacres and deaths from assault weapons tripled since the expiration of the assault weapons ban. Military-style weapons are responsible for almost every one of these crimes, and we can do something about it.

•Second, close the loophole that allows for individuals to purchase firearms without being subjected to a background check. If you want to buy a gun, you should always be subjected to a background check, and right now, you can legally purchase certain types of guns at certain types of sales without doing so. This massive loophole allows for terrorists or convicted felons to have access to firearms.

•Third, enact state Senate Bill 501, which would bar individuals who have a protection from abuse order from owning firearms and make it easier to take weapons away from those convicted of domestic assault. Many of the perpetrators of our worst massacres have been convicted of this heinous crime, and no one who beats an intimate partner should have access to a firearm.

It’s also vitally important that we discuss mental health. We frequently hear in this country that there is a need to improve our mental health system to prevent these types of massacres, despite the fact that someone with mentally illness is significantly more likely to be a victim of a crime than a perpetrator of one.

Indeed, opponents of gun safety often shake their heads, offer their “thoughts and prayers” and pledge to deal with our mental health system. That is followed immediately by … absolutely nothing, except attempts to repeal Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, both of which would fundamentally devastate our mental health system by cutting off funding, preventive care and hospital beds.

If you are opposed to gun safety measures, and want to improve our mental health care system, it’s not enough to say words that sound good. You have to stand for something.

Here are some suggestions. First, address the rising shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists by increasing reimbursement rates and Medicaid/Medicare slots for mental health care. Second, increase funding to critical and crisis care treatments, allowing for the creation of additional hospital beds to treat those experiencing a mental health crisis. Third, increase the reach of programs like the nurse family partnership and pre-K education, which have been proven to dramatically decrease mental illness.

Each and every one of us — from the most ill homeless person to the president of the United States — is never more than one moment away from a mental health crisis and running headlong into a system that doesn’t care about us. One in 5 American adults suffer from mental illness; 1 in 20 suffer from an illness so debilitating that they can no longer work. If you don’t care about the mentally ill, fine, but remember, this could be you or someone you love in a heartbeat.

There is no single solution to stopping gun violence, and individual and familial responsibility has an enormous role to play in ending this bloodshed. Background checks and banning the sale of military-style weapons won’t stop every massacre; after all, all of our laws and police activity don’t stop every crime. But our law enforcement — and the laws they enforce — do save countless lives and stop innumerable crimes every day.

We aren’t powerless. There are solutions. American ingenuity and know-how can save thousands of lives, and the only way to guarantee that the problem only gets worse is to do nothing.

All of us have an obligation to each other to make the world a better place, and we should be tired of living in a society which allows for over 13,000 gun deaths every year, including 17 dead children and adults on the floor of the freshman building of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla..

Mike Schlossberg of Allentown is state representative from the 132nd District.