PARKLAND, Fl. — After the apparent suicides of two students, Parkland is reckoning with the trauma carried by survivors and family members of last year’s mass shooting.
The town is back in the national spotlight for how it has been coping — or struggling to cope — with its grief, after a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student and graduate killed themselves within days of each other.
Rattled by the youth suicides, many in the Parkland community are openly discussing mental health and trying to figure out how to help children cope after the Valentines Day 2018 attack.
It’s a familiar topic for Kai Koerber, an 18-year-old student at the high school.
“Over the past year, I’ve had friends threaten to kill themselves and I’ve talked them down over the phone,” he said.
Despite the semblance of some normalcy, trauma remains bubbling underneath.
“They’re afraid to go into classrooms,” Koerber said of friends who’ve struggled. “And even if they’re not afraid to go into the classrooms, it’s the little things in their life that trigger the subconscious PTSD that they’ve experienced. It boils over and for lack of a better term, makes people snap. They don’t know how to deal with it, and they’re not being taught how to deal with it.”
It’s a wake-up call that is galvanizing people, Koerber said.
“We’ve been suffering for a year and we’ve been calling for mental health as well as gun reform, and we need support on both ends,” he said.
While Parkland students have been hailed for their advocacy, the suicides “are a sobering reminder that they are not only young advocates, but also trauma victims and gun violence loss survivors,” Micheal Anestis, co-chair of the American Association of Suicidology, told CNN.
Parents are looking for ways to help
Many in the community are grappling with the youth suicides and wondering how to help.
“When something like this happens, there’s no road map for it and, you can never have enough resources,” said Christine Hunschofsky, the mayor of Parkland.
“One of the challenges has been matching the resources with the people who need them. Everybody grieves differently. Everybody is affected by trauma in different ways. Some people, it comes out earlier. Some people, it comes out later.”
For kids and teens, it could mean difficulty concentrating and sleeping, decline in grades and impaired social interactions, said Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
David Glasgow’s son, DJ, was a student in the freshman building during the shooting last year. DJ was in the classroom next to one that the gunman attacked. While police led the students out of the class, DJ had to walk over two bodies.
After the massacre, Glasgow said his son stopped playing baseball after 10 years in the sport. He just lost passion for the game, he told his dad.
“This summer really hit him, just sort of closed down,” Glasgow said of his son. DJ didn’t go out to play basketball with his friends. He didn’t hang out with anyone, stayed in his room and played Xbox, his dad said.
But Glasgow said he and his wife kept talking to him. His son eventually bounced back and picked up his grades back to As and Bs.
Glasgow, who has two kids attending the Parkland school, seeks to reassure his kids.
“I stress to my kids every day ‘Talk to us.’ I said, ‘We can talk about it. We can figure it out. I’ll give up every penny I have to make sure that you’re okay. And so would your mother.'”
Many are asking their children tough questions like whether they’ve felt their lives were getting too hard to handle.
“It was bad enough obviously what happened last year and living through all of the aftermath … It’s like how much worse can the story get?” said Bari Wolfman, another Stoneman Douglas parent.
Students say emotions are just as important as grades
Both grief and trauma can be long-term, and sometimes, the second year can be more difficult than the first, said Schonfeld. This is because the support system may not be as strong, which results in a more difficult time coping.
On Sunday night, the school district, community leaders, law enforcement and concerned parents met to discuss how to address the trauma and identify possible warning signs.
Hunschofsky, the Parkland mayor, says they are “flooding the community” with information about mental health “so that no one can overlook it.”
“You can’t solve a problem or end a stigma if you’re not comfortable talking about the reality of the situation,” she said.
Jaclyn Corin, a Stoneman Douglas student, agrees.
Although things can get busy at school, she said: “We need to start making time for our students every single day and support them and help them understand that taking care of one another emotionally is just as important as grades.”
In some ways, Jaclyn said she was relieved to be back on campus this year.
“I’m definitely grateful that I got to go back to school for another year and be with people who understand and feel the same things that I’m feeling,” she said, adding that it helped being with other people and expressing how they felt.