In this guest post, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School alumnae and health professionals Angela Malley and Christine Sylvest discuss the mental health concerns and trauma impacting communities affected by gun violence.

When yet another mass shooting occurred on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the students there were only the latest of thousands across the country to feel horror and

Christine Sylvest is a licensed psychologist.

Christine Sylvest is a licensed psychologist.

hopelessness in the wake of unspeakable loss. In the aftermath of this tragedy, however, something new and unusual took place. The students, teachers, alumni and families of the Parkland high school and wider community took their grief and rage and used them to create public initiatives demanding gun violence prevention legislation, better mental health services for students, increased school safety measures, and attention for the daily gun violence that plagues communities across the United States.

Within hours of the shooting, the alumni of Stoneman Douglas began to gather in a group on Facebook, called Mobilizing MSD Alumni, creating an alumni community of over 11,000 within a week, where before there had been none. Mobilizing MSD Alumni was instrumental in supporting the participation of over 2,000  MSD students, teachers, families and other alumni in the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. Two of us, Angela Malley (MSD class of 2006) and Christine Sylvest (MSD class of 1996) spearheaded a completely grassroots effort to coordinate emotional support services for the survivors and community members attending.

We based our idea of emotional support services on the Psychological First Aid model, intending to have licensed clinicians experienced with PTSD and trauma reactions available throughout the crowd. We had no previous experience or example of providing Psychological First Aid at such an event on such a scale. We consulted with organizers of the 2017 Women’s March, several mental health and public health organizations, and experts in the field. Their guidance and wisdom were invaluable in helping us plan for the logistics of providing support services in a massive crowd.

We encountered difficulties with the DC government trying to provide security for the students, HIPAA laws prohibiting mental health clinicians from occupying space in first aid tents, and a general sense from some that mental health support was a nice idea, but just not a priority.

In the end, working on a tight timeline — the March for Our Lives occurred six weeks after the MSD shooting — with a decentralized organizational structure presented significant challenges. Our vision began with wanting to recruit hundreds of volunteers and station mental health clinicians at each first aid tent and at various locations along the march route to provide quiet respite spaces from the crowd. We encountered difficulties with the DC government trying to provide security for the students, HIPAA laws prohibiting mental health clinicians from occupying space in first aid tents, and a general sense from some that mental health support was a nice idea, but just not a priority.

Angela Malley is a TV/film producer and public health professional.

Angela Malley is a TV/film producer and public health professional.

However, our efforts had many staunch supporters among the organizers of the march as well as the MSD community of alumni. Ultimately we were able to have 10 clinicians enter the secured space at the front of the stage where MSD students and other student survivors of gun violence were placed. A dozen more accompanied the over 1,000 members of the MSD community, including students, families and teachers, who gathered together before the march and processed together along the route. We operated on the principle that any support we could provide would make a difference. Even the emotional support table that we filled with chocolate, snacks, stress balls and hand warmers elicited dozens of tearful hugs. Our clinician volunteers spoke with MSD families who were struggling to help their children return to school, teachers whose students had been shot, teenagers whose friends had died, and faculty members who were struggling to know how to help their students and themselves, too. Many members of the community who saw or spoke to our volunteers mentioned how much it meant to them that we thought to provide for their emotional well-being. In a culture where it is believed that the next mass shooting could be just around the corner, the experiences of the victims of the past shootings are often forgotten and dropped from the news cycle, thus denying the significant ramifications of a trauma on entire communities for years to come.

We operated on the principle that any support we could provide would make a difference.

Based on our experience at the March for Our Lives, it is clear to us that the following points are important public health considerations:

It is essential that we consider mental health and psychological first aid in the same ways we provide and plan for physical health and medical first aid. In our experience, this consideration happened in the context of a large march for gun violence prevention with hundreds of thousands of participants. In the larger societal context, this means that we need to destigmatize the experience and treatment of mental illness and begin to talk about it and educate others about it as directly as we educate children about physical health, starting in preschool.

We need to recognize and address the ongoing mental health concerns in the wake of gun violence at national, state and local levels.  This would require utilizing existing community health resources and creating more resources aimed at providing evidence-based, long-term mental health treatment.

Communities that have been affected by gun violence for generations, which are disproportionately poor communities and communities that are primarily people of color, have also been dealing with the generational trauma of such violence. This trauma is a pressing public health issue that cannot be ignored. In our specific experience with a mass shooting at MSD, an entire community of people has now been traumatized, and the effects of that trauma will have lasting negative impact on the school, the towns and even on people throughout the country who watch and identify with the experiences of the direct victims.

What we have learned personally is that absolutely anyone can be an agent of change for the better, regardless of your experience or station in life. We see this so courageously reflected in the leadership of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the other young people who spoke out against gun violence at the March for Our Lives. Indeed, as is written above the entrance gates to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we all can “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

 

Angela Malley is a TV/film producer dedicated to telling stories that have a social impact. She has a Master’s in Public Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she focused on Social and Behavioral Sciences and Health Communication. She grew up in Parkland and Coral Springs, FL and graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2006.

Christine Sylvest is a licensed psychologist in Maryland who works with children and adolescents with anxiety and OCD. She grew up in Coral Springs, Florida and attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School from 1992-1995.