Does Third Suicide Show ‘Contagion’ Affects Mass-Shooting Survivors?

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High Schoolers at Alderdice High School in Pittsburgh, PA.protest school shootings. Photo by Mark Dixon via Flickr

Jeremy Richman, whose daughter Avielle was killed in the 2012 Newtown, Ct., school massacre, committed suicide on Monday. His body was discovered inside Edmond Town Hall in Newtown, days after the suicides of two survivors of the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., more than a year ago.

Doctors and advocates discussed suicide contagion and the growing body of knowledge about the aftermath of mass shootings, the Hartford Courant reports.

According to Dr. Dorothy Stubbe of Yale-New Haven Hospital’s children’s psychiatric inpatient service, “As people move on with their lives after that initial outpouring, we can’t overestimate how traumatic that is for survivors and families — the scars are lasting and small reminders can bring it all back on.”

In mass killings, Stubbe, said, “particularly in schools, where we expect to be safe, the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder afterward can be very high.” For those who live through the attacks, and for the families of the victims, there often is an element of survivor’s guilt, she added.

More studies are examining the impact of active-shooter cases on survivors and families, said Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

It is not uncommon for the survivors of mass shootings such as Newtown and Parkland, and other tragedies, to become advocates for the issues they feel underlie the traumas they experienced.

In the intervening time between the Newtown shooting and Richman’s suicide, he abandoned his job at a pharmaceutical company and joined with his wife, Jennifer Hensel, in co-founding the Avielle Foundation, an organization seeking to enhance research on the neuroscience behind violent behavior.

The student survivors of the Parkland shooting, in contrast, channeled their energy into the March for our Lives, a youth-led political movement aiming to build support for gun control measures in legislatures across the country.

Whatever their methods or movements, the recent suicide deaths of people affected by mass shootings highlight that collective, purposeful action alone cannot heal the trauma they continue to experience.

Yet as the years pass and movements develop, well-intentioned observers and friends can overlook that trauma and grief are ongoing, non-linear processes. Years after the Newtown massacre, Richman’s passing would not have been unusual if Richman did not openly show signs of despair, said Kate Mattias of the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

“That’s why it can be so shocking. One could say, ‘I had no idea … He was going to work … I saw him last weekend.’ Except that the person is dealing with something from a deep, dark place,” she said.

The fact that the death occurred so long after the Sandy Hook shootings also is not unusual.

“For a parent,” said Mattias, “the tragedy never leaves.”

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