'We've lost so many': Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland shooting survivors struggle with suicide, guilt

LITTLETON, Colorado – The destruction and devastation of a mass shooting lingers long after the immediate incident, tearing apart families, friendships and communities as survivors struggle with guilt, loss and post-traumatic stress.

Columbine school shooting survivor Zach Cartaya, 37, knows that all too well.

He lost 12 classmates and a coach on that April day nearly 20 years ago, and suicide deaths have claimed more of his friends over the intervening years.

"These things ripple out. A stone drops in a pond and it all ripples out. And I understand that better now than when I was younger," Cartaya said. "We've lost so many people along the way: that isolation, that grief, that anger manifests in the worst possible ways. It's awful, it's devastating, but unfortunately it's not shocking."

In the weeks and months following the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting, a slain student’s mother died by suicide, as did a student whose best friend was killed. At the time, there was little available in the way of formalized counseling for trauma survivors, and a massive stigma against getting help, experts say.

Monday brought fresh grief for Cartaya and others like him who now work with trauma survivors: The father of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was found dead by apparent suicide in Newtown, Connecticut, police confirmed. Jeremy Richman's death came after the apparent suicide deaths this month of a current and a former student who both survived the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Investigators say Richman, 49, was found in his office at the Avielle Foundation, the nonprofit named in his daughter's honor. The foundation worked to reduce violence and increase community compassion following the shooting death of Avielle Richman, 6, in the school massacre that left 28 dead.

"He was one of the strongest people I've ever met," said Cartaya, who met Richman shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting. "He tried to make lemonade out of those lemons, as best they could."

Experts say there’s a sad connection between mass trauma, especially those involving children, and subsequent suicide deaths in a community. Nationally, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people aged 10-34, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, and adolescents are particularly at risk because they're often facing school and relationship-related stress for the first time.

"Without a doubt, it has an indelible effect on the community," said criminologist Scott Bonn, who writes the "Wicked Deeds" crime blog for Psychology Today. "There's just this lingering collective sense of grief and pain."

Cartaya said he's struggled with suicidal thoughts for years, and nearly took his life four years ago following a breakup. His mom intervened, and he said years of counseling also helped him move forward. Cartaya is the co-founder of The Rebels Project, a non-profit that connects trauma survivors with each other and with professional counseling. It's named for the Columbine High School mascot.

Former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis credits counseling with saving lives in the aftermath of every shooting and mass trauma in the past two decades. When the Columbine shooting occurred, he said, many people saw the need for counseling as a weakness. But like with a broken arm, you can't just "wish" yourself better, he said -- it takes skill from a trained professional.

“There’s so many people who think they need to do this on their own. And there is so much help and support. That’s what’s so frustrating," he said. "The most important thing is to provide support systems for people, not matter what that looks like."

DeAngelis also said he worries about the role social media plays in amplifying hateful voices. While Columbine's survivors were mercifully spared the horror and re-victimization, Sandy Hook and Parkland survivors have faced massive online criticism, including from people who falsely claim the shootings were faked.

While there's no clear-cut link between mass shootings and subsequent suicide deaths, experts say trauma in general can exacerbate pre-existing challenges. April Foreman, a licensed psychologist who serves on the American Association of Suicidology's board of directors, said there's always a risk that suicidal behavior in one person increases the suicidal behavior of others.

On March 17, an alum of Stoneman Douglas school died of an apparent suicide; Sydney Aiello, 19, had lost a good friend to the Parkland carnage. Then, on Saturday, the body of a male student at the Parkland school was found dead of an apparent suicide, according to authorities. Police did not release the student’s name and age.

"I can guarantee that if you have two deaths, you have other kids at high risk who are thinking about suicide or attempting suicide, and it also likely goes beyond students to other parts of the ecosystem, to teachers, first responders and police," Foreman said. "I recommend that school officials and community leaders reach out to national experts — they are facing an extraordinary situation with extraordinary risk factors and they should call in the experts to help them."

Parkland administrators are urging parents to use the so-called “Columbia Protocol" to assess their children for suicide risk. The scale created by a Columbia University psychiatry professor uses three to six questions to determine whether someone is at risk for suicide and whether immediate action is needed.

Cartaya and DeAngelis said a big part of the problem is that survivors often think they're OK, only to be triggered into some new trauma months or even years later. Anniversaries are the worst, not just the one-year anniversaries, but even a decade out. Knowing that, they said, they urged survivors and their families to seek help whenever they need it, and not on anyone else's timeframe.

"That survivors guilt can be a very, very slippery slope," Cartaya said. "You think, I have these invisible wounds that really shouldn't hurt: Who am I to have these feelings?"

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night.

Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they text 741741.

According to the American Association of Suicidology and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, people can help survivors by:

  • Listening without judgment

  • Using the lost loved one’s name to show that person is not forgotten

  • Accepting the loss survivor's feelings, which can include shock, shame and abandonment

  • Avoiding phrases such as "I know how you feel," unless you, too, are a loss survivor

  • Avoiding telling them how they should act or feel

  • Being sensitive during holidays and anniversaries

Suicide warning signs

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves

  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun

  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live

  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain

  • Talking about being a burden to others

  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

  • Acting anxious or agitated, behaving recklessly

  • Sleeping too little or too much

  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves

  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

  • Extreme mood swings

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We've lost so many': Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland shooting survivors struggle with suicide, guilt