For U.S. school shooting survivors, trauma has no time limit

Former students who survived U.S. school shootings recount the past

Alex Rozenblat can still hear the cries of a wounded boy calling for help as she hid from the gunfire that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year.

Talking to therapists at the school in Parkland, Florida, didn’t help. Each session had a different counsellor, and she found herself rehashing traumas she had already expressed. She would rather turn to her friends, who understand what she went through.

“There is slight pressure to get better as quickly as you can, and since it’s been a year, everyone thinks that you are better,” the 16-year-old said.

The mental health resources after a school shooting range from therapy dogs and grief counsellors at school to support groups, art therapy and in-home counselling. But there is no blueprint for dealing with the trauma because each tragedy, survivor and community is different. Many survivors don’t get counselling right away — sometimes waiting years — making it difficult to understand the full impact.

The struggle is getting them to seek help in the first place. In the two decades since the Columbine High School massacre, a network of survivors has emerged, reaching out to the newest victims to offer support that many say they prefer to traditional therapy.

As the anguish festers, the danger grows, illustrated by the recent suicides of two Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors and a father whose young child died in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

“It changes the community,” said psychologist Robin Gurwitch, a trauma specialist at Duke University Medical Center.

READ MORE: Young woman ‘infatuated’ with Columbine shooting found dead after making threats

Grief, troubling memories and emotions can bubble up any time for survivors and even community members who didn’t see the bullets fly, she said. They can hit on anniversaries of the tragedy, birthdays of victims, graduations and new mass shootings, Gurwitch said. The trauma can even rush back with a song, favourite meal, video game or fire alarms.

“There’s never a time limit. We don’t get ‘over it.’ We hope we learn to get through it and cope,” Gurwitch said.

Survivors of the Columbine attack, which killed 12 Colorado students and a teacher on April 20, 1999, started The Rebels Project, which is part of a loose nationwide network of survivors of mass attacks.

The groups reach out after each shooting. They held a packed meeting for survivors and parents in Parkland this month, describing how they have learned to cope over the years through therapy, exercise and hobbies and assuring the Florida community that their pain is normal.

“We are one family,” said meeting organizer Mike Dempsey, a survivor of 9-11 and the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting. “What helped me after 9-11 was that Oklahoma City bombing survivors drove all the way up to New York to help us. They weren’t mental health professionals, but they were able to offer comfort and outreach and just to let us know: ‘We’ve been through this.’”

Rozenblat refuses to talk about the Parkland shooting. If she feels anxious during the school day, she holes up in a TV production classroom because there are no windows for a gunman to shoot through.

Her mother worries. Alex had been an honours student but now struggles with schoolwork. She’s also started hanging around a new group of friends, said her mother, Lissette Rozenblat.

She schedules therapy appointments, but Alex often makes excuses to postpone or cancel. The family bought a therapy dog and is trying to get Alex into art therapy.

“The common theme among parents … almost all of our kids don’t want to talk about the incident,” Lissette Rozenblat said.

Some students who were not physically wounded minimize their trauma and don’t seek help because they try to convince themselves they were lucky, said Columbine survivor Heather Martin, who co-founded The Rebel Project.

“You can’t measure trauma in that way,” Martin said. Still, she said people need to seek help when they feel ready, not when others think they should.

Victims often receive compensation for longer-term care, but many in recovering communities, especially those may have seen horror but avoided injury, say there’s still not enough help to go around.

Stoneman Douglas math teacher Kimberly Krawczyk said no typical school counsellor — no matter how well-intentioned or trained — can fully help students or staff who survived a mass shooting.

READ MORE: Year after Parkland school shooting massacre, 17 victims remembered

“These kids have seen as much as soldiers who have been in battle. They survived gunfire. They walked over bodies. They had classmates who were right next to them who got shot,” Krawczyk said.

Teachers also are dealing with their own trauma and insecurities, she said.

“We don’t all have our marbles back in our bags yet, but we are in charge of those children. That gravity is a lot of responsibility, and for some teachers, it is too emotionally overwhelming,” Krawczyk said.

Managing long-term mental health effects poses unique challenges in each town touched by tragedy, but experts agree that isolation is a red flag and keeping victims connected to family, friends and community is critical.

Dr. April Foreman, a psychologist on the board of the American Association of Suicidology, called treating mass shootings “a profound lifetime health care issue” but stressed that a majority of those who have suicidal thoughts recover.

Marjory Stoneman sophomore Julia Brighton said she’s attempted suicide four times in the year since she watched the gunman shoot through the window of her English class, killing three friends. Despite an outpouring of community support and a bevy of mental health services, Brighton said she still felt ashamed to seek help.

After months of therapy, she said she realized “there’s nothing to be afraid of because it made me a better person in the long run.”

Terry Spencer, Kelli Kennedy And Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kelowna residents got creative in celebrating Halloween amid COVID-19, taking a haunted house on the road for nearby residents to enjoy. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Gallery: Kelowna residents take haunted house on the road

Grenfell Road Haunted House didn’t open this year, instead found creative way to celebrate the season

(Photo courtesy of David Ogilvie)
Update: No injuries after van fire in West Kelowna

Two fire engines raced to the scene, on Dobbin Road near Scotiabank

Hiawatha RV Park will be demolished starting in February, to make room for a new condo development. Residents have four months to leave. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘I don’t know what to do’; Another Hiawatha resident pleas for eviction extension

Hiawatha RV Park residents have four months to leave the neighbourhood

Kalamalka Lake which connects Lake Country to Vernon and feeds into Okanagan Lake. (File photo)
Response sought to Okanagan Lake level management shortfalls

Water board adds support to Peachland council’s call to change how lake level is managed

In record numbers, Central Okanagan parents were turning to remote learning for their kids this school year. (File photo)
COVID-19 fuels Central Okanagan remote learning expansion

Enrolment for K-9 in eSchool program climbs from 40-50 to 700

Physical distancing signs are a common sight in B.C. stores and businesses. THE CANADIAN PRESS
272 more COVID-19 cases for B.C., outbreak at oil sands project

Three new health care outbreaks, three declared over

A rock slide is blocking one lane off the Trans-Canada Highway west of Sicamous. (Cindy Schedlosky/Facebook)
Rock slide near Sicamous cleared from highway

Single-lane alternating traffic had been in effect.

Vernon-North Okanagan police responded to a property dispute in the 11000 block of Westside Road Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (Google Maps)
Property dispute leads to police presence near Vernon

An altercation between two individuals prompted a police response to the Westside Road area

Titled “Dutch Underground - Laren 1944,” Mineke Spencer’s parents Johanna and Albert Jan Koeslag (centre) sit with their 13 children, who ranged in age from seven (Minike) to 28. Mineke is the little girl with the big white bow in the front, left, beside sister Marie, also with a white bow. (Contributed)
Fearless allies: Shuswap woman reflects on childhood in Dutch Resistance

Mineke Spencer was three-years-old when Germany invaded her home in the Netherlands

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 1987 file photo, actor Sean Connery holds a rose in his hand as he talks about his new movie “The Name of the Rose” at a news conference in London. Scottish actor Sean Connery, considered by many to have been the best James Bond, has died aged 90, according to an announcement from his family. (AP Photo/Gerald Penny, File)
Actor Sean Connery, the ‘original’ James Bond, dies at 90

Oscar-winner was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Several police vehicles were seen at the Sagmoen farm on Salmon River Road in Silver Creek on Thursday night, Oct. 29, 2020. (Martha Wickett-Salmon Arm Observer)
UPDATE: One person arrested, released following police presence at Sagmoen farm

RCMP were at Silver Creek property where remains of Vernon woman were found in 2017

Most Read