2 school massacre survivors, dad kill selves
By TERRY SPENCER, KELLI KENNEDY and LINDSEY TANNER
Tuesday, March 26
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Tragedies like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and Sandy Hook Elementary school massacres eventually fade from view, blunted by other mass shootings and the passage of time. But for the survivors, the pain can never end.
The father of a Sandy Hook victim killed himself Monday, just days after two Stoneman Douglas students also took their lives. The Florida deaths have officials in Parkland and nearby Coral Springs renewing their communities’ focus on the suicide prevention and mental health resources that remain available 13 months after a gunman killed 17 people at the high school.
In Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 first-graders died along with six staff members six years ago, the body of 49-year-old Jeremy Richman was found outside his office Monday morning.
Richman’s daughter Avielle was fatally shot at Sandy Hook. He had visited Florida last week and met with the parents of Stoneman Douglas victims, said Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa died there.
Richman and his wife oversaw The Avielle Foundation, a group they started dedicated to preventing violence by better understanding brain health.
“Our hearts are shattered, and our heads are struggling to comprehend,” the foundation said in a statement. “Tragically, his death speaks to how insidious and formidable a challenge brain health can be and how critical it is for all of us to seek help for ourselves, our loved ones and anyone who we suspect may be in need.”
Multiple suicides among mass shooting survivors can be alarming, but mental health experts said the Florida deaths are not surprising. They come amid a rising nationwide trend: More than 47,000 U.S. suicides occurred in 2017, at the highest rate in at least half a century — 14 per 100,000. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among U.S. teenagers.
“One of the big risk factors for suicide is exposure to violence,” said Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Even if they weren’t hit by bullets or didn’t see shots fired, “anyone who was at that school is at risk,” Kraus said, and should be screened.
“The scars simply don’t go away with a fresh coat of paint,” he said.
Psychologist April Foreman, a board member at the American Association of Suicidology, said survivors are more prone to suicide and thus must be vigilant about mental health check-ups just as if they had a family history of breast cancer or heart disease.
With help, people can overcome their suicidal impulses, she said.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion that this will happen to everyone who’s been exposed to this and the majority of people who are suicidal don’t go on to die. They go on to recover and live,” she said.
The first suicide took place March 16. Cara Aiello told WFOR-TV last week that her 18-year-old daughter Sydney had suffered from survivor’s guilt — her friend, Meadow Pollack, died in the attack.
Sydney had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled to attend college because she feared being in a classroom, but never asked for help, her mother said.
Coral Springs police officer Tyler Reik confirmed Monday that a Stoneman Douglas sophomore apparently killed himself Saturday, but said an official determination had not been made pending an autopsy. The boy’s name was not immediately released.
Community leaders, government officials, parents, police and others held an emergency meeting Sunday after the second student suicide, Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky said.
The biggest push will be to alert parents to talk to their children about whether they are having suicidal thoughts and outline the danger signs for them, such as personality changes or a preoccupation with death, she said.
The groups also want students to look out for each other, and noted that the community counseling and resource centers that opened after the attack still remain available.
The task has been made more difficult as Stoneman Douglas students are on spring break.
Hunschofsky said that while there is concern the two suicides could lead to more, it is more dangerous not to discuss what happened.
“We cannot be afraid of talking — the only way we are going to identify people who need help is to talk about it,” she said.
A 16-year-old Stoneman Douglas sophomore who was in a classroom where three students died on Feb. 14, 2018, told The Associated Press on Monday that she tried to kill herself four times before she entered therapy.
At first, she was ashamed, she said, fearing that accepting counseling would mean she “couldn’t’ handle my problems” and “I was broken.” But her attitude changed with the support of therapists, family and friends, said the girl, who the AP is not naming because of her age.
The girl said she fears not every Stoneman Douglas student who needs counseling is getting it and noted that some teachers seem uncomfortable talking about suicide and simply want to move on.
In Connecticut, Richman was among the Sandy Hook relatives suing Infowars host Alex Jones for contending the Newtown shooting never happened.
Neil Heslin, whose son, Jesse Lewis, was killed at Sandy Hook, said the families’ grief has been compounded by such conspiracy theories.
“Every day you get up, you expect to get punched in the chin,” Heslin said. “I give Jeremy credit for what he accomplished with his work and his amazing strength that grew through the years.”
Newtown Police Lt. Aaron Bahamonde said Richman left a suicide note, but did not disclose its contents.
On Monday, residents streamed into the Resiliency Center of Newtown, which was set up shortly after the shooting as a place for therapy and for people to gather to talk. Richman worked with the center in providing “brain health” first aid for children and others.
His friend, Stephanie Cinque, the center’s executive director, said people are angry, sad and shocked by his death.
“There’s mixed feelings throughout town,” she said. “Grief is complicated. It’s very sad for the family, the children, the entire community. So today we’re letting people know it’s OK to have those feelings.”
The emotional scars survivors feel last for decades.
Columbine High massacre survivor Heather Martin was not physically injured in the 1999 shooting that left 13 dead, but said she took years to emotionally overcome the attack. She helped form the Rebels Project, named after Columbine’s mascot, to assist mass trauma survivors.
“Resilience is connecting with other people and gaining strength from other people,” Martin said. “You don’t always have to be the strongest person.”
Tanner reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Dave Collins in Hartford, Connecticut; Dan Elliott in Denver; and Joshua Replogle in Parkland, Florida, contributed to this report.
Is suicide contagious?
Updated March 25, 2019
Anna Mueller, Assistant Professor of Comparative Human Development, University of Chicago
Seth Abrutyn, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Memphis
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Over the past two weeks, two students who survived the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have died by suicide, amplifying the tragedy that community has experienced.
Is this yet another instance of a phenomenon some have dubbed “suicide contagion?”
In recent years, research has shown that suicide has the potential to spread through social networks. If someone is exposed to the suicide attempt or death of a friend, it increases that person’s risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts.
The consequences can be devastating for families, classmates and townspeople, who are left struggling to understand why clusters of suicides are occurring in their communities. In recent years, we’ve seen this play out in Newton, Massachusetts and Palo Alto, California.
But the role of suicide contagion is perhaps one of the least understood aspects of suicide, which puts us at a significant disadvantage when it comes to designing effective strategies to prevent the spread of suicides.
In a 2015 study, we examined whether knowledge of a friend’s suicide attempt would influence someone’s own risk of attempting suicide.
Using longitudinal data, we discovered that adolescents who know about a friend’s suicide attempt are nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide one year later. Youth who lose a friend to suicide are at an even higher risk. Interestingly, adolescents whose friends didn’t tell them about their suicide attempts didn’t experience a significant increase in their risk of suicide one year later.
Our study has several interesting implications for suicide prevention.
First, experiencing the suicide attempt or death of a friend appears to change adolescents’ risk profile in a meaningful way. We’re all exposed to suicide at some point, whether it’s through reading Romeo and Juliet or simply watching the news. But exposure to a friend’s suicide attempt or death appears to transform the distant idea of suicide into something very real: a meaningful, tangible cultural script that youth may follow to cope with distress.
Second, following the old adage “birds of a feather flock together,” some have argued that depressed teens may simply befriend one another, which explains why groups of friends have similar suicide rates – and which contradicts the theory of suicide contagion.
However our findings add to the literature indicating that suicide contagion is not merely a product of adolescents choosing friends who are similarly vulnerable to suicide. If contagion didn’t matter, knowledge about suicide attempts shouldn’t matter either. Rather, it’s apparent that only if youth know about their friend’s suicide attempt does their suicide risk spike.
So what do we do with this knowledge?
It’s clear that suicide is not simply a product of psychological illness or psychological risk factors. Exposure to suicide, even if it’s just an attempt, is emotionally devastating, and youth need support when coping with the complex emotions that follow. Here, prevention – or, as it’s sometimes called, “postvention strategies” – becomes crucial.
One clear implication of our work is that during screenings for suicide risk, youth should always be asked whether or not they’ve known someone who has attempted or died by suicide. In fact, many reliable tools for screening youth for suicide include questions about exposure to suicide.
This seems reasonable. But then things get murky.
Given what our research has shown, it’s only natural to wonder whether or not someone who has attempted suicide should be discouraged from talking about it. There’s the fear that if we talk about suicide, we may be inadvertently promoting it.
At the same time, if we encourage people to not talk about suicide – particularly young people – we might miss opportunities to help those who are suffering and contemplating taking their own lives.
Furthermore, feeling like you belong to a group – supported by friends and family, having a healthy social life – is essential to preventing suicide. If we encourage young people to not talk about suicide, we may unintentionally increase suicidal adolescents’ feelings of isolation, which contributes to risk of suicide.
Because of the pervasive stigma of mental illness and suicide, it’s often very difficult for people to admit they need help. So instead of encouraging silence on the topic of suicide, it may be better to train adolescents how to respond appropriately when a friend discloses a suicide attempt or suicidal thoughts.
Luckily, evidence-based programs like Question, Persuade, Refer and SOS Signs of Suicide exist. These can teach young people strategies for getting friends help from appropriate sources. Incidentally, these programs are often offered in schools.
Additionally, it’s important for parents, teachers and coaches to feel comfortable talking about suicide; they need to be well-versed in the proper responses, and realize that a suicide attempt can have a ripple effect that reverberates beyond the individual.
After all, it’s when adolescents are left alone to cope with their friends’ distress that they become most vulnerable to succumbing to the same suicidal ideation and behaviors.
This is updated version of an article originally published Dec. 3, 2015
For Venezuela’s 1 percent, a lavish wedding amid crisis
By LUIS ANDRES HENAO
Monday, March 25
ACARIGUA, Venezuela (AP) — It was the sort of celebration that’s become rare in troubled Venezuela: a lavish destination wedding of two young entrepreneurs at a dude ranch on the country’s vast tropical plains, a region known for its rugged cowboys on horseback rounding up cattle — and where camps like this one cater to the nation’s ever-diminishing elite.
Over three days, guests, including a former Miss Universe, wealthy landowners and others among Venezuela’s 1 percent, emptied bottles of expensive whiskey, herded water buffalo on horseback and stomped their feet to the sound of a popular country music crooner.
“This is not the real Venezuela,” a waiter noted at one point during the back-to-back partying.
But even at this destination reserved for the wealthy in a nation in the throes of economic crisis, reality intruded, at least for a while. A local children’s hospital was in disrepair, and the couple and their guests began by painting its crumbling walls.
“Hosting a celebration amid these circumstances is obviously tough, but that’s why we did the work at the hospital,” said the groom, Juan Jose Pocaterra, the 32-year-old co-founder and CEO of Vikua, a startup tech company whose name means “Quality of Life” and that Forbes magazine has called one of Latin America’s most promising.
“For Juan and for me, who are entrepreneurs, it was very important to have this wedding here because we’re betting on Venezuela,” added 33-year-old bride Maria Fernanda Vera, the founder and CEO of Melao, a fashion company, who grew up in this region known as the “llanos.” ”We believe in Venezuela’s reconstruction.”
The oil-rich, once-prosperous nation, is reeling from the worst economic crisis in modern Latin American history. Some 3 million people, or nearly 10 percent of the population, have left the country to escape hunger, violence and hyperinflation. Basic medicine is lacking. Many who remain cannot afford bare necessities on salaries that average $6 a month.
In an acknowledgment of that reality, as the events began on a Friday, about 50 guests joined in to help stencil white diamond-shaped patterns on the bleak blue walls of the children’s hospital in the nearby city of Acarigua.
The activity, organized with the help of the Venezuelan NGO Tracing Public Spaces, “is a way to contribute amid so much suffering,” Pocaterra said, as his bride, who regularly contributes powdered milk and other supplies to the hospital, nodded.
As night fell, though, any reminders of the humanitarian crisis gripping the nation disappeared.
The guests gathered under a full moon at a hacienda on the property. Some donned helmets and saddled horses for a game that involved herding water buffalo into a pen as the rest of the guests watched safely from a distance. Waiters in bow ties passed around cold beer and grilled chorizos as a band played “joropo,” fast-paced folk music performed with a harp, maracas and a four-string guitar. Decked out in a cowboy hat, 72-year-old crooner Joel Hernandez serenaded the bride and groom to the strains of “llanera,”the region’s traditional country music.
Many guests wore T-shirts designed by the bride’s fashion label that read “La Tierrita,” — the Little Land — a reference to her heritage on the vast savanna that spans much of central Venezuela from the Orinoco River to the Andes. It’s a region of exotic birds, caiman and capybara, as well as the birthplace of the late President Hugo Chavez, who often used to claim he was born there in a mud hut.
To be sure, though, any talk of Chavez, or his hand-picked successor, President Nicolas Maduro, was not welcome with this crowd, which included landowners whose property had been expropriated by the socialist government, as well as opposition politicians, and a student leader who nearly lost an eye in anti-government protests. Many of the couple’s close friends did not make it because they, like many well-healed Venezuelans, were now living abroad in places like Miami, Madrid and other cities with large Venezuelan expatriate communities in Europe and South America.
Talk turned to Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old opposition leader who had declared himself interim president in January in a move quickly recognized by the United States and some 50 other countries, and who, for this group like many Venezuelans, offered the first hope for regime change in decades. Sitting at long wooden tables, some half-jokingly wondered not if — but when — U.S. Marines would arrive.
The next morning, the guests awoke in rustic log cabins to the chirping of birds — and a slight hangover. After a breakfast of traditional stuffed corn-patty arepas, the day’s events included wall-climbing, horseback riding, swimming and bocce ball. In the grassy fields, workers slaughtered a cow and a pig to grill on a stake, and set up a stage worthy of a rock concert.
Then came the lakeside wedding. Women in flowing summer dresses fanned themselves with delicately painted folding fans as they held pastel-colored parasols to shield themselves from the sun. Men wearing white shirts, suspenders, bow ties and beige pants donned Panama hats provided to the guests. Among the bridesmaids was 2009 Miss Universe Stefania Fernandez.
Maickel Melamed, a Venezuelan motivational speaker known for his TED Talks and marathon running despite suffering muscular dystrophy, officiated, joining the couple on a wooden pier to the sound of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and Disney’s “A Whole New World.”
As the sun set over the lake, Melamed asked the guests to close their eyes and “make a wish for the homeland that we all long for.”
Back at the ranch, the partying began and the Johnnie Walker Black flowed. Some lined up for a buffet of beef, pork, yucca and cachapas, the sweet-corn crepes filled with rich white cheese popular in Venezuela. More than 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of cheese were brought in for the event. Others hit the dance floor until past 4 a.m.
For a politically active former Miss Universe, it was the first time back home in years.
In 2014, Fernandez joined other celebrities, artists and sports figures in a campaign called “Gagged in Venezuela” to protest restrictions on freedom of expression. She posed wearing a crown, her face blackened and appearing bloodied, a rope tied around her mouth. Soon after, she said, she lost all her modeling and other contracts and left the country. After some time in Miami, she now lives in Colombia.
“The decision to come here wasn’t easy,” she said. “I feared facing Venezuela’s reality, and it’s much cruder. There’s more hunger and more poverty. But today, there’s also hope.”
Apollo 11 brought a message of peace to the Moon — but Neil and Buzz almost forgot to leave it behind
March 26, 2019
Author: Michelle L.D. Hanlon, Professor of Air and Space Law, University of Mississippi
Disclosure statement: Michelle L.D. Hanlon is affiliated with For All Moonkind.
“How about that package out of your sleeve? Get that?” is certainly not the most famous phrase uttered by a human while on the Moon. And the items nestled in a small packet that astronaut Buzz Aldrin had stowed in the pocket just below the shoulder of his extravehicular mobility unit were certainly not mission critical. They were sentimental objects, intended to be left on the Moon purely for symbolic and commemorative purposes.
More than one hundred sites
You may be surprised to learn that a partial catalog of human-made objects on the Moon fills more than 20 single-spaced pages. There are more than a hundred sites on the Moon with evidence of human activity. The sites contain materials from the European Space Agency, Japan, India, Russia, China and the United States. Not only do these sites contain ongoing experiments, they hold invaluable data. For example, engineers are hoping to examine these materials to determine how they have fared after continuous exposure to the elevated radiation levels on the Moon. Along with scientific equipment, robotic landers and other objects left behind to lighten the load for the return home, there are a number of memorial and tributary items.
But perhaps most important, these varied objects, and their position on the lunar surface, alone can reveal the true story of humanity’s history on the Moon. A chronicle which celebrates the persistence and passion of hundreds and of thousands of scientists, engineers and aviators throughout human history who have supported the effort to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” and reach the stars.
I am not a historian. I am a space lawyer and have made it my mission to develop the laws we need to protect historic artifacts and sites in space. I co-founded For All Moonkind, the only organization in the world dedicated to preserving human heritage in outer space, to assure that archaeologists, historians, scientists and tourists are given the opportunity to learn the valuable lessons of our past.
Messages of peace
Buzz Aldrin and fellow Moonwalker Neil Armstrong chose to go to the Moon with an Apollo 1 patch. It was selected to honor the ultimate sacrifice of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who perished in a fire during the first test of the Apollo command and service module. The astronauts also chose to remember their fallen Soviet competitors and carried with them two Soviet medals, honoring cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who died in the Soyuz 1 spacecraft in 1967 and Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth, who was killed in an aircraft in 1968. Aldrin and Armstrong understood that even as Americans raced the Soviets to the Moon, success would be shared by all.
That’s why they also carried a small gold olive branch – a global symbol of peace – and a silicon disk about the size of a United States half dollar. Inscribed on this disk in microscopic text are messages from the president of the United States and leaders of other 73 nations solicited by Thomas Paine, then head of NASA. The messages, intended to be left on the Moon for posterity, are poignant, proud and congratulatory. Some speak of their own national heritage, others salute the courage of the three humans who strapped themselves into a rocket and catapulted into the unknown. From Afghanistan to Zambia, the messages have one common theme: peace.
The Apollo 11 lunar module shows the stainless steel dedication plaque. The signatures are of the three Apollo 11 crew members and President Richard Nixon.
Neil Armstrong’s favorites
According to his biographer, James Hansen, Neil Armstrong identified three favorite messages. The president of Costa Rica hoped the Moon landing would produce “new benefits for improving the well-being of the human race.” The king of the Belgians remained “deeply conscious of our responsibility with respect to the tasks which may be open to us in the universe, but also to those which remain to be fulfilled on this Earth, so to bring more justice and more happiness to mankind.” Finally, the president of the Ivory Coast asked that the first human messengers to the Moon “turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are, when viewed from up there.”
I personally find the message of the president of Mexico rather prescient as he noted “in 1492, the discovery of the American Continent transformed geography and the course of human events. Today, conquest of ultraterrestrial space – with its attendant unknowns – recreates our perspectives and enhances our paradigms.” He went on to remind that human migration to space carries with it “a new far reaching responsibility.”
Space historian Tahir Rahman, who has published an award-winning book that tells the full story of the Messages of Peace, recounts that Aldrin and Armstrong nearly forgot to leave the disc and other mementos on the lunar surface. Indeed, according to NASA records and transcripts, it wasn’t until the Moonwalkers were climbing back into their spacecraft for the return journey to Earth when they realized their oversight. At the last minute, the disc was tossed from the ladder and settled in the regolith without pomp or circumstance. Once in the capsule, Armstrong verified that “the disk with messages was placed on the surface as planned.”
The mystery is not that these busy astronauts almost forgot to leave the disc behind. After all they were pretty occupied being the first humans to set foot on the Moon. I think it is strange that the two most popular films about Apollo 11 released in the last year, “First Man” and “Apollo 11,” make no mention of the disc and its moving and hope-filled messages.
On July 20, 1969, the world united to celebrate the most remarkable technological achievement in human experience. And in that celebration, our leaders focused on our common hope for peace. This is the lesson of humanity’s effort to reach the Moon. I believe this is the history that we must embrace. It is our responsibility to explore space in peace, together as a species.
Let’s not forget, or forsake, the lessons of our past. The first step is to protect the sites which chronicle our history on the Moon. And hopefully, along the way we can recapture the goodwill that Neil and Buzz left behind.
Editor’s note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7 crisis support by text. Text 741741 to be connected to a trained counselor. Students from Broward County schools can text FL to 741741. If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). The website is National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.