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Suicides in Parkland leave community in shock

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A candlelight vigil was held last year for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen students died in one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.
A candlelight vigil was held last year for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen students died in one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.
Wilfredo Lee

The community of Parkland, Fla., is reeling from the news this weekend that two young people took their own lives. On Friday, 19-year-old Sydney Aiello was buried, five days after she killed herself. Aiello was a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year at the time of the mass shooting. A day later, on Saturday, another student took his life. He was a current student, a sophomore whom authorities haven't identified.

Ryan Petty, the father of Alaina Petty, a freshman killed in the February 2018 high school shooting, calls the two new deaths "heartbreaking." This weekend, a post to his Twitter account read "17 + 2" with a broken heart.  Petty says, "This is something we recognized was a possibility early on and tried to drive awareness [about] in the MSD community. I'm hoping now that as a community, we recognize that the threat is very real."

It's impossible to say exactly what led these two young people to take their lives.  Aiello was close friends with Meadow Pollack, one of the students killed in the attack. 

Her parents say she struggled with "survivor's guilt." Shortly after her graduation, she shared a post about suicide prevention on her Facebook page with a hashtag, "asking for help is not a weakness."

Les Gordon, a family therapist who counsels students and former students of the high school, says survivor's guilt is a problem for many of his clients. "They wonder why they're alive and their friend is not," he says. "I've had kids just tell me that they should have been able to do something to stop the shooting."

On Sunday, school officials, mental health professionals, parents and others held an emergency meeting on how to respond to the suicides and reach others who may be at risk. 

In a shopping center just a mile from the school, volunteers on Monday were moving in furniture and supplies for a health and wellness center for the community. The center was supposed to open in about a month.  

Because of the suicides, Director Sarah Franco said it is opening ahead of schedule now with a critical message: "What we're asking parents to do," she says, "is on a daily basis to sit down with their children who are of middle or high school age to ask them if they have any thoughts of dying or any thoughts of suicide or hurting themselves. And that is a conversation that has to happen."

The wellness center, dubbed "Eagles Haven," after the Stoneman Douglas mascot, is being funded by a Department of Justice grant and is modeled after similar programs that were created following school shootings in Columbine, Colo., and Sandy Hook, Conn. Franco says counselors are available at the drop-in center and are reaching out to students and others affected by the shooting to connect them with therapists.

More than a year later, therapists say only a fraction of those affected by the shootings have sought counseling. The recent suicides are a reminder, they say, that for many, the trauma is still fresh and healing requires help. 

Petty says that following the death of his 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, he and his family have seen counselors, and it has helped. "You know we're not there yet," Petty says. "We have good days and we have bad days. But I can just tell everyone how important it is to seek help. And for those we're concerned about, you know, friends, families, neighbors, let's help them get the help that they need."

Monday, there was another sad reminder that long after a tragedy, trauma continues to take its toll. In Parkland, people were hit hard by news from Connecticut that the father of one of the 20 children killed in Sandy Hook took his own life.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.  Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.