CORAL SPRINGS, FLA. (WSVN) - Community leaders and mental health professionals held an emergency meeting in Coral Springs after two survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School died in apparent suicides within a week.
The gathering, which took place in Coral Springs and wrapped up just before 6 p.m. on Sunday, focused on awareness over lingering trauma more than a year after the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre.
The meeting comes after 19-year-old Sydney Aiello took her own life after a battle with survivor’s guilt, her family said.
Days later, a second MSD survivor died in an apparent suicide, police and school officials said.
“This is a real risk,” said Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina died in the shooting.
Aiello was a close friend of Meadow Pollack, who was killed in the mass shooting.
Sunday’s meeting gave parents, students and other residents, who once again find themselves at a crossroads between agony and a call to action, to learn more about resources at their disposal.
“Coming together and offering a simple message to children and parents that there is help available,” said Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, president and CEO of the Children’s Services Council of Broward County.
Parents at the event said they were devastated over the latest turn of events and are concerned for their own children.
“Everybody was anxious, ‘What do we do? What do we say?'” said Petty. “It took a bit to bring everybody together.”
While the recent deaths are devastating, health professionals said this outcome is not all that surprising.
Dr. Dara Bushman, a clinical psychologist who has worked with MSD survivors and their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, said trauma doesn’t just go away with time.
“That’s the difficult part with trauma, is that how one child internalizes it or experiences it is going to be completely different for somebody else,” she said. “This is everybody’s biggest nightmare, and here we are, people still reliving the trauma day after day, over and over.”
Since the shooting, Petty has led awareness campaigns to help provide mental health services and aid to those who need it.
“We have to help others,” he said.
Those attending the meeting put together an action plan that included talking to children and making them aware that services and help are available.
“This is a risk that this community is facing. We need people to take it seriously,” said Petty, “and then we want to give them very specific actions that they could take and understand where to get help and make that as simple as possible.”
Sunday’s emergency brainstorming session aimed to help a community still coping with a seismic wave of sorrow and grief.
“We need it to stop. Seventeen is too many; 19 is too many,” said Petty.
The group has adopted what’s known in professional circles as the Columbia Protocol, a framework of how to talk to a loved one in crisis.
“It’s on all of us as a community — as parents, as teachers, as counselors — to ask those questions and to get them the help they need,” said Petty.
Bushman said warning signs of someone who is struggling may not be apparent all at once.
“You want to notice if they’re withdrawing, if they’re being isolated, if they’re not keeping the same patterns with their sleeping, their eating,” she said, “and if they just don’t seem like they’re enjoying things. So many times parents will say to me, ‘I’m scared to ask them’ or ‘I don’t know what to ask them.’ Just say something, be direct.”
If there’s just one takeaway for parents concerned about their child, Petty said, it’s to keep communicating with them because it could save a life.
“Our message is to encourage parents to sit down with their kids and ask them these questions and understand whether or not they’re at risk,” he said, “because what we learned, unfortunately, this week is that kids who may appear to be OK and not having issues are actually suffering in silence.”
Broward residents may dial 211 to reach the Crisis Suicide Intervention hotline. It’s available 24 hours a day and is completely confidential.
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