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Is there a relationship between mass shootings and suicide?

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NOTE: This article contains explicit information related to suicide and mental health that may not be suitable for all audience members. Discretion is advised.

A father who lost his six-year-old daughter in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting died in an apparent suicide on Monday. Two students who survived the 2018 Parkland, Fla., high school shooting also reportedly ended their own lives.

After the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, a mother of a murdered student died by suicide, as did a student whose best friend was killed, USA Today reports.

These series of events are connecting the dots between mass shootings and their tragic aftermath, and highlighting the struggles that those affected continue to face.

Are suicides common after mass shootings?

According to Edy Nathan, a New York-based licensed psychotherapist and author, dying by suicide after a mass shooting is “a phenomenon.” She says there’s no clear data that shows mass shootings cause suicide, but it’s not uncommon for a traumatic event to trigger mental health issues.

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“It can [happen] six months, a year, can be two years or even 10 years after an incident,” Nathan told Global News.

“What we find is that a lot of people around the survivors will be so happy that their loved one is alive, and it often puts the actual survivor in a very difficult spot because they’re not feeling lucky… it puts them almost onto an unrealistic pedestal.”

Research shows that survivors and community members affected by mass shootings often have adverse psychological outcomes, which includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. These mental health issues can be risk factors for suicide.

Nathan said people may also experience survivor’s guilt, and question why they are still here and others are not. These feelings can be very isolating, as people may not feel comfortable sharing these thoughts out loud.

The mother of 19-year-old Sydney Aiello, who was on campus the day of the Parkland shooting and recently took her own life, said her daughter was diagnosed with PTSD. Cara Aiello told CBS news that her daughter also suffered from survivor’s guilt, as she lost a close friend in the attack.

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Jeremy Richman, the father whose daughter was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., created a foundation with his wife dedicated to preventing violence in his daughter’s honour. He died by suicide over six years after the tragic event.

“When we think of a father or a mother of a child, [they may think], ‘I’m going to pay this loss forward; I’m going to teach; I’m going to do the best that I can do to get the word out,'” Nathan said. “[But] it sometimes means that they haven’t necessarily worked through their own grief. Then on an anniversary, or near an anniversary, they can all of a sudden start to feel as if they are re-experiencing the loss for the first time.”
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This “re-experiencing” can result in feelings of numbness, anxiety or depression, and make a person feel unlike themselves, Nathan said.

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“And as a result, they kind of don’t know what’s happening to them. Sometimes they’ve been thinking [of suicide] for a long time, but other times it’s not a plan, and … it can just be, ‘I can’t take this pain anymore.'”

The traumatic nature of mass shootings

Any act of violence can be traumatic, but mass shootings are “uniquely disturbing” because they often happen without any warning, said Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at Toronto’s Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH).

Kamkar said that the places where recent mass shootings have occurred — schools, places of worship, night clubs — are often seen as “safe spaces,” and spots people go on a regular basis. When these space are violated, it can be devastating.

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“It can really shatter our belief systems about ourselves, about others and about the world,” Kamkar said.

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These horrifying events can cause PTSD, which includes flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety. PTSD paired with survivor’s guilt and/or feelings of isolation can be a really challenging situation for someone to be in.

As in the case of parents or friends who lose a loved one in a mass shooting, feelings of grief and depression can also have a serious impact on well-being.

“When we talk about suicide, we know that it’s not one singular factor that could lead to it,” Kamkar said.

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“Often, it’s that combination — the interconnection — of a variety of factors. I think it’s very important to appreciate the combination [because] it could be … symptoms of post-traumatic stress, along with symptoms of depression, along with [a lack] of support that could lead to feeling helpless, and then to suicidal behaviours.”
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Age can play a factor in dealing with trauma

Survivor’s guilt and PTSD can be hard for anyone at any age, but especially for kids and teens whose brains are still developing.

Nathan said trauma can change the brain, so it’s important for survivors to work with a therapist who can help shift their cognitive responses.

“It is so important for these kids to continually have someone checking in with them, and not necessarily glorifying their survival but rather saying, ‘You know what, it’s tough and it may continue to be tough, but we’re going to navigate through this,'” Nathan said.

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She points out that after a mass shooting, triggers can cause the body to react as if it were re-living the traumatic event.

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“Our sense of smell can take us back to a trauma faster than any of our other senses,” Nathan explained. “If they smelt gunfire [during a shooting], for example, at a barbecue they could think, ‘Oh my God, that’s starting to smell like that gunfire.”

These associations can cause people to go into the fight-flight-freeze mode, and send a message to their brain that they’re in danger.

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“It’s very, very scary,” Nathan said. “The brain is saying ‘It’s not safe. Get out of here, run… This has long-lasting effects.”

Getting support

Both Nathan and Kamkar said it’s important that people dealing with trauma seek professional help. A qualified therapist can help someone work through emotions of grief, anger, and anxiety, and support their healing process — which may include mental health challenges.

Kamkar says feeling connected with loved ones and the affected community is also vital, as it can help normalize some of the emotions someone may be experiencing. Just as important is self-care Kamkar says, and knowing when alone time to “recharge” is needed.

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“When we talk about mass shootings, communities often come together,” Kamkar said. “That’s very, very important, as is being able to talk about and validate our stories and our emotions.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911. For mental health programs and services around Canada, please refer to the list here.

Laura.Hensley@globalnews.ca
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