Sandy Hook and Parkland survivors need not suffer in silence

In the past week, three people, who were closely affected by mass shootings in this country, are believed to have died by suicide. First, it was two teens who were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. when a gunman opened fire last year killing 17 students and staff and injuring others.

Yesterday it was Jeremy Richman, whose 6-year-old daughter, Avielle, was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. What I’m about to say is in no way intended to minimize the traumas these three individuals experienced or to diminish their emotional pain. These losses are heart-breaking; tragic. And, it didn’t need to be this way.

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I did not have the good fortune to know these people, nor do I know definitively if they suffered from trauma-related emotional distress such as post-traumatic stress disorder, grief or depression. I can only imagine the psychic burdens they carried on their backs and in their hearts. I also do not know if any of them had ever tried mental health-care services, or if so, what type of intervention they received.

What I do know, as a psychologist who has spent the past 20 years researching traumatic stress and treating its survivors, is that there are effective interventions to help people heal. While the emotional pain from trauma may seem unbearable, we must be a support for survivors.  We need to share with survivors information on effective treatments for trauma-related difficulties — for PTSD, for grief, for depression, for dissociation. No one should suffer alone or in silence.

This morning I spoke with Dr. Debra Kaysen, professor at the University of Washington and the incoming president of the International Society for Trauma Stress Studies. She expressed some concern about the media coverage of these recent trauma-related deaths. “When PTSD is discussed,” Dr. Kaysen explained, “It’s often presented as something that is a permanent state of being, rather than as a response to an injury that can be alleviated, and potentially cured using the right treatments.”

Through years of research and clinical intervention, we have effective PTSD treatments. This is great news for individuals who have experienced abuse in childhood and carried their psychic burden well into adulthood; for combat veterans who fought for their country but struggle decades later to find their way home; for women who served proudly in the military, only to be subjected to sexual assault by the men they served with; for victims of random acts of violence and horrific accidents; and for individuals who directly experienced acts of terror and mass shootings. Thousands of people can now benefit from the PTSD treatments that have been developed and tested.

Health-care professionals who are aware of and knowledgeable about trauma can offer information about treatment, teach coping skills, work from a personalized approach, and are sensitive to cultural and socio-demographic differences. They can engage with trauma survivors in shared decision-making regarding steps forward. They can talk about the process and procedures of these treatments, their effectiveness, the risks-benefits, and associated emotional and practical demands.

Of course, not all trauma survivors want to come in for help or they may start one of the evidence-based psychotherapies and choose to dropout. And, some patients fail to benefit from these treatments. But, those survivors do not appear to be the majority.

For those trauma survivors who are not yet ready to come in for formal mental health treatment, there are free, research-based resources that are readily available to anyone with access to a computer. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD has a website, with lots of great information, including award-winning videos in which trauma survivors and their family members share stories of recovery, as well as mobile apps that provide self-help, education and support following trauma.

Another well-regarded organization is the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress Studies. This group was created by Congress in 2000 to raise the standard of care and increase access to services for traumatized children and their families. There are a variety of helpful, free resources on their website, including face sheets with tips for taking care of oneself and connecting with others.

For trauma survivors and their loved ones, you are not alone. Healing from trauma is not only possible, it’s probable with effective intervention. And, for the loved ones of the three trauma survivors who died by suicide this week, my heart aches for you. May your loved ones’ memory be a blessing.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.