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 homicideAs a therapist who specializes in grief, loss and trauma, I am intimately aware of the nuances of suicidal ideation during the grief process which, as any bereaved person knows, lasts for several years at a minimum. 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 these frightening aspects of both grief and trauma in addition to the sadness, anger, denial, and other more frequently talked about “grief emotions”.
Yet this ideation reaches far beyond bereaved teens, and I also lay witness to this on a daily basis. Today’s young people call themselves the “massacre generation”, the “mass shooting generation”, and the “Columbine generation”, and feel directly under threat either from others or themselves.
The brave and thoughtful young people who seek therapy seem to bear the weight of a generation who live 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 area, 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 our services. These include crisis response interventions after the death of students or school staff, grief groups at participating schools in Durango, Silverton and Cortez, and grief, trauma and resiliency sessions for teachers and school counselors in both La Plata and Montezuma Counties. After the school shootings in Aztec, NM 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 their great loss for more than 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 recent 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.