Not All Survivors of School Shootings Survive

Protect college-bound students who fear or have experienced traumatic events.

Posted Apr 01, 2019

Source: Unsplash

The tragic back-to-back suicides of two students who attended Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida at the time of last year’s massacre serves as an important and heartbreaking reminder that not all survivors of school shootings survive. The fear, horror, and grief these young people experience can trigger Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms of the same severity as combat veterans. While some are able to access high-quality mental healthcare services and find a positive way forward, others can sink into despair. Drugs, alcohol and the onset of other mental health issues common among young people can add fuel to the fire, leading to devastating crises.

With more and more school shootings taking place each year—there were a record 24 in 2018—and districts across the country requiring students to practice what they would do if faced with an active shooter, we are bound to see greater numbers of young people entering college with conditions ranging from acute depression and anxiety to full-fledged PTSD. These students will need expert care and vigilant monitoring to ensure their wellbeing and safety, as well as those around them. Unfortunately, some colleges and universities have had a difficult time assisting students with relatively benign mental health conditions. Are they ready for those with PTSD and the accompanying hostility, mistrust, guilt, loneliness, insomnia, nightmares and emotional detachment?

The answer: They must be. But to do so, they must commit to preventive protocols that seek to identify the earliest indications of a potential crisis rather than wait for clear signs of an impending threat. This requires the creation of multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams to identify at-risk individuals or groups. Such teams must receive training, meet regularly and utilize established protocols for tracking “red flag” behaviors and early warning signs. Crucially, they must establish a system that sets off procedural alarm bells when needed, triggering team members to immediately conduct investigations, perform threat assessments and determine best methods for intervention, community notification, and response.

Families also have a role to play. Parents can encourage their college-bound children with identified mental health issues and/or past traumatic experiences to sign releases authorizing clinicians and college administrators to share otherwise private medical and academic information. They can ensure their child is on the school’s radar by arranging meetings with the Dean of Students as well as the counseling center, law enforcement, disability office, and others, widely circulating their contact information. What’s more, they can vet local mental health professionals as well as nearby hospital emergency departments that offer psychiatric and/or substance abuse services to make sure such providers are at hand and familiar with their child in the event of a crisis.

Tragically, school shootings have become a part of life in this country. While we haven’t yet found a way to stop them, we can do more to better protect students for whom the fear of such massacres has triggered serious mental health issues to say nothing of those who’ve personally experienced their horrors.