Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is scheduled to reopen to students on Tuesday. The children, teachers and staff who survived the shooting last Wednesday now have to deal with a shared trauma.
To understand what that means, and what the survivors need now, Health News Florida spoke with Dr. Roderick King, dean of public health education at the University of Miami and head of the Florida Institute for Health Innovation in West Palm Beach. King has researched the effects of youth violence.
Health News Florida: Thousands of kids survived a traumatic event. What are the immediate concerns about their mental health?
King: So, there are a couple of things we're most immediately concerned about short-term: changes in health patterns, for example, disruption in their sleep. Some kids will feel a sense, cut off from their emotions. And this could have not just an effect on the children but also on the families.
And what are the things that we need to worry about in the months to come?
We're going to probably see signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. There are going to be children that are afraid to be around loud noises, afraid to go to school. They'll be afraid to be in open spaces where they might potentially relive the events that occurred last week. And just even potentially affecting their relationship with their family, their loved ones, and their other friends. They may begin to isolate themselves.
So that's the longer-term effect that we're really, really worried about.
What can be done now to support these kids?
So, there are a couple of things. There are support groups that are around. I know there's the Children's Home Society of Florida, which specializes in giving support for children and families through traumatic events. Florida Blue is offering grief counseling through the New Directions Behavioral Health Network.
And then there are other things like the community health centers that students and families can go to.
And for family and friends of kids, and parents, and teachers who may be experiencing some of this—what can a family or friend do?
The most important thing is for them to come together and talk. I think being in isolation is probably the worst thing. Ideally if you can get an expert that's a counselor, particularly around grief counseling, that could also join those groups, we really encourage folks to talk it through.
WLRN has reported, and we've discussed, in Miami-Dade County alone, more than 850 kids survived gunshot wounds over the course of a decade. How has Florida dealt with children in the past who have survived shootings?
You know, I think the state is really trying.
But the truth is, Sammy, to be honest, a lot of these kids experience the violent events and no one ever knows. There isn't a specific way that we channel these kids into certain types of services once they've experienced a violent or traumatic activity.
So I'm sure that number, 850, is probably well below what the real number is. I'm sure there are probably close to thousands of kids that have had these kinds of experiences. But the challenge is we haven't been able to capture them all. And we don't have a very good mechanism to really monitor them and support them through grief counseling or help them through their PTSD that they may be having.
To that end too, we know that injuries by guns are the second leading cause of death among young people in Florida and across the nation, but less than 1 percent of academic journal articles about pediatric deaths are about gunshot wounds—and that's according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Even less is studied about the survivors. So how does that affect the response to survivors now at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High?
The research that has been available, as you mentioned, has really been limited. And I think from some of the other work and conversations we've had, we've known some of the factors, particularly some of the efforts from the National Rifle Association and other gun advocate groups to really stifle the research.
But I think in terms of your question for the students and the families, we really owe them the opportunity to be able to do more research to figure out what are the best ways to prevent this.
What you're seeing now are the students’ willingness to step into the fold to be true leaders to create the environment in the world that they want to live in. Any good movement is only as strong as the foundation of knowledge that it's built upon.
And we owe it to them to both support them in their efforts to have their voices to be heard, and to provide the best information available so that they can help to move forward those actionable steps to prevent this from happening in the future.