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With national spotlight dimmed, Parkland students tackle the real struggle: mental health

South Florida Sun Sentinel - 2/14/2020

All it takes is the shrill sound of a fire alarm.

When Ryan Deitsch heard the sound in his dorm at American University earlier this month, he froze. As the rest of the students fled, yelling at him to follow, the freshman’s heart raced as he relived the afternoon of Feb. 14, 2018 -- when a fire alarm put students and teachers directly in a shooter’s path.

Earlier this month, the blare of a fire alarm in the halls at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland sent frightened teenagers into the halls -- again -- some crying.

“Nobody who was there is OK. I know that,” said Sam Zeif, an MSD graduate. “This is something that will be part of everyone’s lives for a long time.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shootings where 17 people died and 17 were injured, angry outspoken students said “never again.” They became instant activists, organizing protests and marches, and the national faces of gun safety advocates on television, in magazines and on social media. But now that the intensity of their efforts to bring change has slowed and the media spotlight has dimmed, many face the real struggle. Depression, anxiety and severe post traumatic stress disorder have forced them to drop out of high school or college, or rely on medication and therapy to get them through each day.

“These kids are trying to adjust to a new normal and it’s difficult,” said Liz Deitsch, Ryan’s mother. “They are forever changed and that’s the aspect people don’t realize.”

Their struggles

Mental health experts say PTSD can crop up any time after a trauma in the form of flashbacks, insomnia, misguided anger and overwhelming sadness. Because processing trauma differs for everyone, “some are just beginning to work through the stages of bereavement,” said Dr. Pamela Baker, a licensed clinical psychologist in Coral Springs who has dealt directly with MSD students.

The reaction of the Parkland students in the aftermath of the tragedy differed greatly from past school shootings; they sought purpose and activism as an outlet for grief. The students began the Never Again movement; organized the Washington, D.C. protest, March for Our Lives, that drew students nationwide; founded the advocacy group Students for Change. Over summer vacation in 2018, they spent 60 days touring 20 states to push voter registration and stricter gun legislation.

Three months ago, Emma Gonzalez tweeted about her mental health struggles, telling her 1.6 million followers she has depression, anxiety and PTSD. Gonzalez is a survivor of the shooting and well known for having transformed her heartbreak into activism for stricter gun laws. She co-founded March for Our Lives, and gave interviews in the national media.

In a documentary called US KIDS, she gives a glimpse into her recognition of how real the mental health struggle has been: “It might be good to emphasize how unhealthy we were so people don’t think it’s a good idea to do a bus journey of their own,” she said.

Like Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky, founder of March for Our Lives, is working through his PTSD. He has taken the semester off from Columbia University. His father, Jeff Kasky, said Cameron has good days and bad days, and now limits his public speaking and media interviews. “It takes a lot out of him," Jeff said.

“With the March for Our Lives students, they are realizing when the lights go off and there are no reporters to talk to and no audience, that’s when reality hits,” Jeff said. “Using their platform was part of their mental health process, and they continue to process.”

Some parents and therapists now question whether their pace and the difficult fight against a powerful gun lobby exacerbated the emotional toll.

“After what they went through, we put changing the world on their shoulders,” said Nicole Cook, a mother of two daughters who were at the school during the shooting. “We don’t know if it was emotionally helpful or not. What they are experiencing now is a reaction.”

Immediately after the tragedy, counselors descended on the Parkland high school, offering therapy. Some students took advantage, others resisted. Some complained it was inadequate -- a mere surface attempt to address an enormous problem. Just after the first anniversary, when two survivors took their own lives, South Florida nonprofits opened Eagles’ Haven, a special wellness center created just for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas community.

But now, two years after the tragedy, the juniors and seniors from the high school are freshmen and sophomores at colleges across the country -- no longer surrounded by friends in Parkland who relate, teachers who understand their lack of motivation, and therapists who have treated groups of students and parents at the school.

Life away from Parkland

Sam Zeif, 19, lost one of his best friends -- Joaquin Oliver -- in the shooting in Parkland. Heartbroken, he joined other survivors months later at the White House to speak openly about gun control measures and later appeared on NPR. Now, Zeif is a sophomore at the University of Central Florida, making his way through college without Oliver, who was killed by the shooter in a hallway outside his creative writing class.

Zeif says recently he sat in his car in a parking lot and cried after hearing a Mac Miller song that reminded him of Joaquin.

“There are just those moments where everything catches up to you,” he said. Zeif said he went back to therapy a month ago, after more than a year of trying to cope on his own. “I’m glad I did,” he said, encouraging others to do so.

Therapists and Parkland parents who spoke with the Sun Sentinel said they know at least a dozen alums who have gone away to college and returned home -- unable to motivate themselves to go to class or control panic attacks.

“They are going to counseling centers on their campuses that are not equipped to handle their issues, and they are feeling discouraged,” said Baker, the Coral Springs psychologist. “They tell me the counselor doesn’t get why they care where their seat is or why they can’t go to class certain times of day ... they feel people outside of their community don’t understand.”

Rather than traditional mental health counseling, Parkland students tend to require trauma therapy, which helps them recognize triggers and manage their responses.

Michael Houghtaling, program manager for Smith Community Mental Health, said right after the school shooting, Broward trauma therapists were overwhelmed. And while many students have received treatment, some Parkland teens even two years later still don’t recognize they need help, he said.

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“Trauma has a way of rearing its head at times when you don’t expect it," he said. "I can understand why they are struggling two years down the road if the trauma wasn’t initially addressed.”

Rebecca Boldrick, mother of David and Lauren Hogg, said both her children are receiving trauma therapy. David, who helped lead several high-profile protests, marches, and boycotts, attends Harvard University. The rest of the family has moved to Maryland.

“I think David and his friends were so busy they didn’t deal with their trauma,” she said. “As a mother of someone just dealing with this at Harvard freshman year, I can tell you it’s hard.”

Boldrick said she has a trauma therapist and psychiatrist for both her children. She worries some teens remain in denial or are self-medicating. “They are doing whatever it takes to numb the feeling, which is sad. They need to reach out and get help.”

At MSD, there are always reminders

In Parkland, where Valentine’s Day marks two years since the mass shooting, students like junior Holden Kasky, Cameron’s younger brother, still walk by the freshman building where their friends were killed. The building is fenced off with a mural around it. Students say the reminder is hard, as are loud sounds and fire drills like the one in early February.

“Some of the kids were crying. I could tell from the look on their faces they were really scared,” Holden Kasky said.

The mental health community is aware that these students will need therapy for at least several more years, said Nicole Mavrides, a UM Health assistant professor and adolescent psychiatrist who has worked with Parkland teens.

“There is a lot of push to continue to offer services to these kids,” she said.

Eagle’s Haven, which opened in Coral Springs in March 2019, has become a therapeutic place to try out kickboxing, yoga or drumming circles, or participate in support groups. When families need trauma therapy, professionals at Eagle’s Haven connect them with resources. A state grant allows people in the Parkland/Coral Springs community to get mental health counseling at no cost. Sarah Franco, executive director of JAFCO, which runs Eagle’s Haven, said 2,000 people have walked through the door, and the center has made 776 mental health referrals.

In addition, Marjory Stoneman Douglas also has turned two portables into a wellness center. This week, counselors in the center conducted wellness checks with each of the teens in the freshman building at the time of the shooting, students told the Sun Sentinel.

“It’s never going to be easy, but I think as time goes on we are learning coping mechanisms,” said Dara Rosen, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. “It has taken certain people longer to show their emotions. I didn’t seek therapy until after a year. Mental health may have a stigma in America but not at my school. Everyone talks about it. You know who is going to therapy.”

Diane Wolk-Rodgers, an AP World History teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, said she has given struggling students an alternative to therapy, training them in mindfulness and the mind-body connection. She practices the skills, too.

“Many of us feel this year is harder than the first anniversary,” she said. “The first stage is denial, but I recognize it’s so important for kids to see healing together takes a village.”

Parents are struggling too

Watching their children grapple with horrific flashbacks, crying spells, and days where they don’t want to go to school has taken a toll on Parkland parents.

“We are not in a great place,” said Doug Zeif, father of four boys, two of whom were at the high school during the shooting. “We have all been in and out of therapy to try to figure out how to deal with this.” Zeif said he even attended a suicide-watch class to learn the warning signs.

Each day, Zeif said he internalizes guilt. “I blame my generation for this occurring. We watched Columbine and Virginia Tech, and we sat in our living rooms thinking ‘those poor people.’ Now we are ‘those poor people,’ and this is going to be with us forever.”

Liz Deitsch, who still has a daughter at MSD, says living a new normal is difficult. She continues to search for a therapist who her daughter will open up to as well as coaxing her to see a counselor at school. “Everything you thought or wanted for your kids, you let go of in a way. Tests you would get upset over you don’t. You still want them to have a future, but it’s shifted completely. Mental health and happiness become critical.”

Patricia Oliver celebrated her son Joaquin’s 19th birthday in August without him. She said she looks around at her son’s friends and their parents and she sees signs of PTSD everywhere.

“It doesn’t have a time or schedule. We all react in different ways,” she said. “The love and counseling have to be always there.”

She urges adults to attend events with kids trying to cope and advocate for change.

“We have to be there supporting them -- all of us.”

Cindy Krischer Goodman can be reached at cgoodman@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4661, Twitter and Instagram @cindykgoodman

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