Parkland Shooting Suicides Showcase Need To Better Understand Suicide And Trauma-Induced Mental Health Issues
The 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, Florida has claimed the lives of two additional victims. Two survivors of the massacre Valentine's Day have apparently committed suicide within a day of each other. Although the motives of the two are unknown, the suicides likely have something to do with the traumatic experiences these individuals shared. The fact that the Parkland murders preempted these latest events has certainly drawn the attention of the national media. It has also pushed public officials to pressure parents, community leaders, and mental health professional to confront the issues faced by Parkland survivors. Mobilizing a military-style campaign against the issues faced by trauma victims will not, however, be enough. The fact that parents are advised to bluntly ask their children about suicidal thoughts shows a failure to understand the mindset of the suicidal and traumatized, which makes it impossible to address their issues.
Suicide is a difficult concept for most healthy people to comprehend. Living creatures are programmed to defend against death and extinction, so suicide is a particularly unnatural act that most people simply cannot grasp. Suicide is not simply a choice to be made: suicide is a slow, terrifying process that can easily go undetected and unaddressed for years. Those facing this sickness will often feel a compulsion to end their lives, even if they want to live, because they want to escape whatever emotional and psychological pain they cannot cope with. Even the smallest disappointment or piece of bad news can send some of these individuals into deep depressions. Once a suicidal individual has convinced himself there is no hope of ending his suffering and the pain of dying will be less than that of living, an attempt at suicide is near.
With that in mind, suicide and the depression that often fuel it tend to be the result of an event or circumstance. Trauma, such as that experienced by the victims of mass shootings, is one of many circumstances that can push someone toward depression and suicide. Ranging from mild to severe, trauma-induced mental illnesses, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Acute Stress Disorder, and Developmental Trauma Disorder, will often leave those suffering unable to properly function in normal, everyday circumstances. The human mind is capable of overcoming great adversity, but all individuals have their limits. Stressful circumstances tend to force people to adapt in ways that can make them dysfunctional in other aspects of their lives. Leaving the specific diagnostic terminology to clinicians, trauma-induced mental illnesses can be better understood by taking a closer look at how extreme and prolonged stress affects individuals who find themselves in traumatizing circumstances.
An individual is traumatized when stressful events or environments overwhelm that person's ability to successfully respond to a given situation. When a trauma leaves a traumatized individual unable to properly deal with similar stressors in other crises and non-crises, that individual loses the ability to properly function in everyday circumstances. A veteran with PTSD, for example, may find the moderate stress of a trip to the grocery store, which might remind her of some traumatizing war experience, so intolerable that she sobs and collapses into the fetal position before she lashes out against onlookers. The traumatic events that caused the PTSD have created a heightened sensitivity to the stressors associated with a necessary visit to a public place, thus the soldier's diminished ability to ignore the stress of dealing with crowded areas and her heightened sensitivity to potential threats leaves her dysfunctional in a wide variety of circumstances.
Furthermore, an individual with a trauma-induced mental illness tends to avoid uncomfortable situations, just as all people do. The difference between a reasonably healthy person and a dysfunctional person is a heightened sensitivity to necessary discomforts. Facing a situation reminiscent of a traumatizing event or situation, a traumatized person will struggle to cope with normal stressors. Unable to deal with continuing and/or overwhelming stress, the traumatized individual will respond to normal, manageable situations as though they are crises. The ensuing reactions may be manifested internally, which might take the form of anxiety, an unresponsive state, an inability to focus on tasks, constant daydreaming, or suicidal thoughts. They may also be manifested externally, which might involve crying, screaming, verbal attacks, attempts at suicide, or violence.
Because trauma-induced mental illnesses lead sufferers to respond to stressful events in abnormal, often disruptive, ways, it is the tendency of others to essentially shun and socially attack, i.e. add stress and provoke a stronger reaction, those suffering from these conditions. For example, consider a severely abused and/or neglected child who has developed a reactionary personality and hypersensitivity to controlling, i.e. manipulative and deceitful, behavior. Constantly exposed to unaddressable stressors, a.k.a. a state of duress, this individual would learn to aggressively react to any perceived provocation. Obviously, this would lead to a great number of poor choices and issues when socializing, thus this individual would experience added stress from negative responses to his dysfunctional behavior. Depending upon how excessively and vindictively his peers respond, this unhealthy social dynamic would itself be traumatizing. Consequently, an individual suffering from a trauma-induced mental illness may experience secondary traumas due to the symptoms of the original trauma.
Trauma-induced mental illnesses can be disabling and extremely difficult to overcome without a strong support network, which the dysfunctional often come to lack, and proper intervening help, which targets the underlying issues that must be addressed. What individuals inflicted by these conditions need is an opportunity and environment that allows them to be desensitized to the everyday stressors that they no longer know how to deal with. In other words, they need to relearn how to cope with necessary stressors, so they no longer respond to everyday circumstances as though they are encountering unmanageable crises. Recovery hinges upon the ability of these individuals to encounter and successfully overcome the same stressors that traumatized them. If communities wish to help, they need to create environments where individuals suffering from trauma-induced mental illnesses can feel secure enough to begin relearning how to interact with the world. For survivors of the Parkland massacre and other mass shootings, communities must create safe social environments and encourage open discussions of the emotions fueled by the traumatic experiences. Continually reminding survivors of their experiences by showcasing mass shootings as part of a national gun control debate, in contrast, only serves to traumatize survivors.
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