Stopping the cycle of loss, suicide

To the editor,

My heart is heavy after the suicides by Parkland teens, just one year after the school shooting that killed 17 of their classmates. I am sure I am not alone. Unfortunately, no community is untouched by the loss of young lives.

We know that bereaved teens are at a three times higher risk for suicide, and this proves true clinically in my office each week. We also know that this risk is much larger for those who have lost loved ones to death by suicide; I am unable to find any research on suicide risk after mass homicide.

As a therapist who specializes in grief, loss and trauma, I am intimately aware of the nuances of suicidal ideation during the grief process. Most of my bereaved clients flirt with the possibility of ending their own lives at some time. My job is to provide a safe place and trusted relationship to process the frightening aspects of both grief and trauma in addition to sadness, anger, denial and other more frequently talked about “grief emotions.”

Yet this ideation reaches far beyond bereaved teens. Today’s young people call themselves the “massacre generation,” “mass shooting generation” and “Columbine generation,” and they feel directly under threat either from others or themselves.

The brave and thoughtful young people who do seek therapy seem to bear the weight of a generation who lives with the very real fear that their lives may be in danger or cut short. For some, this sense of imminent threat and global grief creates a response in activism, but for many, particularly those without strong support systems, it creates a sense of nihilism. As Dr. Hannah Schell states in her article for Vocation Matters (2019), “When the future looks bleak and your options seem severely curtailed, the view that nothing really matters can take hold. Why bother planning for a future that may not come?”

This sense of hopelessness magnifies during times of grief and often manifests in increased substance use, self-harm and suicidal ideation. Isolating forms of entertainment become appealing, such as obsessive gaming or binge-watching. It also thwarts long-range planning, such as thinking of college, graduate school or a long-term career or relationship.

So here in Southwest Colorado and the Four Corners, what can be done to help alleviate the suffering of these young people? More importantly, what is being done?

After a dramatic rise in youth and teen deaths by suicide in both La Plata and Montezuma counties, the Grief Center of Southwest Colorado has been expanding its services. These include crisis response interventions after the death of students or school staff, grief groups at participating schools, and grief, trauma and resiliency sessions for teachers and school counselors. After the school shootings in Aztec in December 2017, The Grief Center provided immediate support and aftercare through local youth service organizations including the Boys and Girls Clubs in both Aztec and Farmington.

As valuable as the immediate interventions are, these services are generally requested for the first few days or weeks after a traumatic loss; we have a short but important climb in recognizing as a community that the needs of the bereaved go far beyond this timeline. Often the reality of the loss and the impending hopelessness do not make themselves apparent until the survivor has been suffering with his or her loss for a year or two.

Of note, The Grief Center of Southwest Colorado is part of the ongoing effort to lower the occurrence of deaths to both suicide and substance use in our communities, speaking broadly to the fact that post-vention bereavement counseling is also prevention.

Sadly, these completed suicides by the two bereaved Parkland teens are not really a surprise. We owe it to this generation, which I would like to see dubbed the “resilient generation,” to offer deeper and longer support after loss.

To make a donation to support our efforts, go to griefcenterswco.org. To schedule a talk or support for your organization, as well as to make an appointment with a bereavement specialist, please call 970-764-7142.

– Judy Austin, LPC, director, The Grief Center of Southwest Colorado