For school shooting survivors, trauma has no time limit

Associated Press April 18, 2019

By TERRY SPENCER, KELLI KENNEDY and COLLEEN SLEVIN

PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — 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 counselor, 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 counselors at school to support groups, art therapy and in-home counseling. But there is no blueprint for dealing with the trauma because each tragedy, survivor and community is different. Many survivors don’t get counseling 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.

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, favorite 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.

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