What We Talk About When We Talk About School Shootings

Vicky Villareal and Matthew Arauz, both 16, pay their respects at a memorial at Central Park for the Saugus High School shooting. Photo by Kent Nishimura of the Los Angeles Times.

Do we really know the impact of school shootings?

We know the lives lost. We know the violence, the fear, the panic. But do we really know the impact?

According to a database compiled by the Washington Post, more than 233,000 students in America have been at a school where a shooting has taken place since the Columbine High School murders in 1999.

That’s more than a quarter million kids.

After an incident of school violence, the national conversation turns to two things mainly: mental health and gun control. While both are worthy topics of discussion and worth the time and worth the action, I’m afraid that something gets lost — the mental health of the students who were nearby, saw their classmates gunned down or simply heard the shots and experienced fear.

A report from the American Psychological Association says this:

Most survivors show resilience. But others — particularly those who believed their lives or those of their loved ones were in danger or who lack social support — experience ongoing mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 28 percent of people who have witnessed a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and about a third develop acute stress disorder. Research also suggests that mass shooting survivors may be at greater risk for mental health difficulties compared with people who experience other types of trauma, such as natural disasters.

Amy Novotney, Monitor on Psychology, September 2018

These people often get lost in the discussion afterward. Maybe we believe that the grief counselors and assistance provided to those survivors is enough. And to be sure, that effort is to be applauded and appreciated.

But what about when the counselors leave? What about when those students have to get back to their normal day-to-day lives? Sometimes, even if the best counseling occurs, this happens:

Both were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, during the February 14th, 2018, shooting that left 17 people dead. Both survived the school shooting—the deadliest since the Columbine High School massacre. Now, both are dead of suicide within a single week. Sydney Aiello, a 19-year-old Parkland graduate, killed herself with a gunshot wound to the head last weekend, the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office told NBC News. Her family told CBS Miami that Aiello had struggled with college because classrooms scared her and she had survivor’s guilt following the death of her friend in the shooting. A week later, on March 23rd, the Coral Springs Police Department announced that a current Stoneman Douglas sophomore (whose name remains unreleased at this time) had died in an “apparent suicide”…

A decade after Columbine, survivors told ABC News that they remained haunted by flashbacks, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt; the two Parkland student suicides evoke the death of Greg Barnes, a star Columbine basketball player, who took his own life two weeks after the first anniversary of the massacre. On Monday, the father of a first-grader killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was found dead of apparent suicide, the Hartford Courant reports.

Jared Keller, Pacific Standard, March 25, 2019

When we talk about this most recent school shooting, let’s not forget the people who survived. Let’s honor the ones who have passed, and let’s pray and express sympathy for the family and friends of the alleged gunman, who took his own life after the shooting according to news reports. But let us — Christians, non-Christians, men, women, children, adults, politicians, non-politicians, everyone — remember those who are still here.

Mental health efforts aren’t a sprint to be completed as soon as humanly possible just so we can take a seat on the sidelines. They’re a lifelong marathon requiring water, food, sports drinks, encouragement, new shoes, training and a desire to run the race to completion.

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