IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Suicide after surviving mass trauma isn't inexplicable. And there are ways to help.

The recent deaths of of two Parkland teens and a Sandy Hook father have brought needed attention to the phenomenon of survivor guilt.
Image: Jeremy Richman
Jeremy Richman in Newtown stands the backyard of his home in Newtown, Conn on Oct. 30, 2013.Craig Ruttle / AP file

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention there is no single clear cause for suicide. But researchers have found that overwhelming feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, shame, survivor guilt and anger can lead an individual to consider suicide as a possibility. These feelings are all part of normal emotional life and, under normal circumstances, most of us have tools for managing them — at least to some extent.

A massive trauma, like a school shooting, mass murder or natural catastrophe can however damage the coping abilities of even the healthiest among us, making managing normal responses to negative emotions feel overwhelming. The three recent deaths by suicide by people with deep connections to school massacres in Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida are powerful reminders of how such pain can sometimes continue long after the event is no longer in the public eye.

Trauma specialist Ghislaine Boulanger told me, “Trauma can be corrosive and contagious and it spreads.” She explained that even if someone wasn’t an immediate witness, he or she can suffer long-term trauma from any connection to such an event.

And the effects can linger: Boulanger said that she went to New Orleans to do some post-trauma work three years after Hurricane Katrina and found that there was a definite unaddressed need. She told me, “the community needs to make sure that they continue to have sufficient resources for people to drop in. This is going to be an issue for conservatively five years.” But some people people think that, after a year, everything should be better. “They think you should be moving along,” she said, which can be how some survivors’ crises get missed by even the people who love them.

It is thus very important for communities to have support systems in place for individuals who have survived such an attack, for families, other students and teachers. Even those who were not on site at the time of the shooting need access to trained professions with whom they can talk about their feelings.

But one additional problem for many communities is that such a trauma can wreak such widespread and often unrecognized long term destruction that, said Boulanger, “it damages the very fiber of the community, so that normal help resources may not be enough and new resources have to be put in place.”

Therapy, with someone who is trained to understand and help manage the emotions involved, can help. The pain of feeling alone with these feelings can be overwhelming, yet it can be very hard to talk about what is happening inside you to someone else. Boulanger said that it is “very important to feel that you can go to someone who can hear and accept your feelings, and not try to change them in anyway. “

“To the extent that people feel that they can safely talk about how they’re feeling, and that they have someone to acknowledge and validate what they’re feeling,” she added, “they’re not so alone.”

There are a number of other ways that people attempt to manage the pain of a traumatic event, including ignoring the feelings. But it’s important to understand is that not everyone immediately benefits from talking about their feelings, and not everyone is ready to talk about their feelings at the same time. In order for therapeutic work to take place, a person has to trust that the other person can understand and accept what may seem like confusing, ugly, and overwhelming feelings. Only then can the feeling of being alone be combatted.

Another common response is to try to help others avoid the trauma that damaged you. While that can sometimes be successful, it can also fail to provide adequate solace over time. Carol Tosone, also a specialist in the area of large-scale trauma, told me that, when some survivors channel their grief into working to make sure that such a tragedy never occurs again, being suddenly faced with the failure of their work to make a difference they may be unable to maintain the defense.

For instance, it could be devastating to a parent fighting for gun control in the United States where anti-gun activities have had very little impact to see how quickly New Zealand put new gun laws into place after the recent attack on a mosque.

And I spoke to Margaret Wood, former co-director of the Psychological Counseling Services at Williams College in Massachusetts, who told me that when it comes to teens, it’s important to remember that “adolescence is a time of life when one feels so much and hasn't yet gained the tempering that a fully developed brain and life experience can bring.” Helping teens cope with significant trauma can be even more difficult compared to an adult, and made more so when both parent and child are confronting their feelings about the same trauma.

“The challenge for parents,” she said, “is to maintain connection through all the turbulence, fluctuations, and intensity.”

Tosone added that anyone — and adolescents in particular — can feel tremendous survivor guilt in relation to those who did not survive the attack. “They are embarking on their lives, because of serendipity they weren’t the people who were killed,” she explained. “The pain of survivor guilt, of moving on with your life, when someone else can’t, can be intolerable.”

So what can you do to help? If a friend or loved one has been through a trauma, it can help for you to let them know that you care. Making it clear that they can talk to you if they want but don’t have to, and that you are also available to hang out, to engage in conversation that isn’t related to the trauma or to their feelings, to joke, or to go to the movies, can be enough to help with the overwhelming sense of aloneness that such an event can cause.

If they are unhappy, but not in danger, encourage them to seek professional help, and even offer to call to help them find a professional through their doctor’s office or your own, a college counseling center or local counseling and psychotherapy offices; often just the difficulty of finding a professional can feel like too great a barrier to getting assistance.

And if someone is expressing the possibility of harming themselves, take it seriously and contact their doctor or therapist, go with them to an emergency room, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7 or visit for additional resources.