Survivors Of Mass Shootings Can Experience Life-Threatening Trauma, Guilt
Austin Eubanks was 17 when he survived the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. He watched his best friend die. In the years following, he struggled with addiction, got clean and became a motivational speaker. He detailed his experiences in a TEDx Talk in 2017 in Denver.
In April, Eubanks died of a heroin overdose.
Eubanks is not the only person who survived a mass shooting, or lost someone in a mass shooting, to later succumb to the lingering impact of trauma and grief.
Jeremy Richman died by suicide in March, seven years after his six-year-old daughter Avielle was shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Also in March, two survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, died by suicide.
Now — after two mass shooters killed dozens of people in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio — survivors are starting down a long road marked by violence and death.
Sheri Kay is a licensed practical counselor at The Ecumenical Center for Healing & Hope in La Vernia. She lost loved ones — a niece and a nephew, as well as some good friends — in the massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in 2017. She said the despair of survivors can be devastating.
"It’s survivor’s guilt, and there’s the grief, the loss, the emptiness, and you’ve got to fill those voids with something,” Kay said.
Kay has counseled several Sutherland Springs survivors, but on the day of the massacre she was simply an aunt and a friend. She rushed to the church as soon as she heard there was a shooting.
"When I first got on scene I saw a couple I knew well, and I immediately asked them where my niece and nephew were,” Kay recounted. “They just shook their head, and then I asked about one of my other close friends who was there, who is a survivor, but I think I walked a couple of steps and hit my knees and started hyperventilating."
How do you move on from that?
Capt. Richard Schobitz with the United States Public Health Service is a clinical psychologist who currently serves as the chief of the Intensive Outpatient Program at Brooke Army Medical Center. He said trauma, survivor's guilt, and PTSD play out in the civilian world in very much the same way as they do for those in the military.
"What we know is there is a link between post traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation,” Schobitz said. “And, in a way, having thoughts about wanting to end it all are kind of rational when you look at what the person — who’s going through really extreme post traumatic stress disorder — life is like."
It can play out in addiction, like it did with Columbine survivor Eubanks, or in a number of other ways.
"They stop engaging with the world around them,” Schobitz said. “They stop interacting with their families. The world really closes in around them. They become emotionally cut off."
Schobitz said emotional isolation is dangerous.
"With post traumatic stress disorder, with survivor's guilt, with moral injury, social isolation is one of the biggest red flags, so even if it seems like we should let them have their space, we really need to check in," Schobitz said.
Kay said if you see someone isolating, “come alongside” them.
"If you have any inkling someone might be feeling that way then take it serious. Watch them. Ask questions. Try to get them to share. Check on them. Don’t leave them alone. Don’t let them isolate. Come alongside them."
Schobitz said that sounds easy, but it often isn’t.
"Asking someone, 'Hey, did you just say you were thinking about killing yourself? Is that what you meant when you said you didn’t want to wake up?' That’s a scary question for any of us to ask."
Part of Kay's healing involved taking in the dogs that were left without a family when her niece and nephew died. One of them is Buddy, a big, loving, rescue dog who now spends his days at the Ecumenical Center.
"I say, ‘Hey, can I bring Buddy in and he’ll be our unofficial therapy dog?’” Kay explained. “So he comes to work with me and our clients love Buddy. In fact, if I don’t bring him I get fussed at because Buddy isn’t here."
Buddy really helps trauma survivors — especially children — feel more comfortable in a counseling setting. He helps Kay make peace with this new reality, though she admitted she isn't the same person she was before the shooting.
"You’re never going to be the same,” Kay said. “You won’t be that same person that you were before, and I think some people want to try to go back and they can’t, and they’re having a hard time finding who am I now."
Kay said those who are having suicidal thoughts or ideation should reach out to their family and friends. For many of those in Sutherland Springs, their faith and their church family has helped. Therapists who specialize in trauma, like Schobitz, can help.
Columbine survivor Eubanks was 37 when he died, but he left behind some advice for those who are now where he started, in the immediate aftermath of an incomprehensible horror.
"I want to leave you all with something I wish I had known at age 17. Whoever you are, whatever you’re going through, in whatever way you might be going through it, in order to heal it, you have to feel it.”
Eubanks said in his Tedx Talk that when he was 17, no one asked him about his emotional pain. They asked about his physical pain, then gave him opioids to treat it. The opioids also numbed his emotional pain, and he became addicted. That eventually killed him.
Capt. Schobitz said everyone, from professionals in the hospital to a survivor’s family and friends, should ask about the emotional pain. He said providing a pathway for conversation can be healing in and of itself.
Schobitz said we all can be part of a healing community.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is free, confidential and can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.