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After Parkland students' apparent suicides, city holds town hall to discuss mental health

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John Draper, the director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, talks to CNN's Alisyn Camerota about survivor's guilt in the days, weeks, and years following tragic incidents -- both man-made and natural.

Posted: May 20, 2019 2:20 PM
Updated: May 20, 2019 2:20 PM

The loss of two young survivors of last year's massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has left the Parkland community reeling and mental health professionals are stepping in to help.

The Coral Springs City Hall opened its doors Wednesday evening to host a panel of experts who answered questions from those wanting to help children cope with trauma. And a wellness center dedicated for Stoneman Douglas students, their families and teachers opened this week.

"As much as we wish that we could go back to 2/13 (the day before the shooting) and make it all go away, we can't. But we are trying the best we can to get services available to all of you," said the panel's moderator Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, CEO and president of the Children's Services Council of Broward County.

Experts offered advice on how parents can connect with teenagers who isolate themselves, talked about alternative methods like therapy dogs and discussed whether adults can safely talk with children about suicide.

Jackie Rosen, executive director of the Florida Initiative for Suicide Prevention, said parents should feel confident to talk about mental health with their children and begin those conversations "as soon as possible."

"We need to get rid of the stigma so people are willing to talk about it," Rosen said. "This needs to be a family conversation and absolutely age appropriate."

While many consider boosting mental health programs for students, experts said, it's also important to promote mental health for teachers.

"To the teachers in the room, the first thing I'm going to ask you to do is to take care of you, take care of yourself and make sure that you are as strong and as nurturing as you can be for yourself," said Patrice Rotolo, clinical director for Smith Community Mental Health.

"Take care of your own needs because that's the best way to meet the needs of your students."

She also encouraged teachers to check in with their students when they resume classes after spring break. Some may not want to talk, she said, but others may have the need to open up.

"So, the fact is they're going to come in Monday morning and we're not sure what they're going to need. So, let's start the day with a check in," Rotolo said.

The event was part of ongoing efforts by authorities and local leaders to ramp up outreach in the community in the wake of recent suicides. Coral Springs is adjacent to Parkland, site of the high school where 17 people were shot to death on February 14, 2018.

Last week, Sydney Aiello, a 2018 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, killed herself. The massacre profoundly affected the 19-year-old, who suffered from survivor's guilt and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, her mother told CNN affiliate WFOR in Miami. Aiello was a student at Florida Atlantic University.

Another survivor, Calvin Desir, 16, died Saturday in what police described as "an apparent suicide," said Officer Tyler Reik with the Coral Springs Police Department. Desir was a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

School district officials, community leaders, law enforcement and concerned parents met on Sunday to discuss how to address the trauma and identify possible warning signs.

The school has tried to help by offering counseling and other resources to students, teachers and staff. And 3 miles from the high school, the Coral Springs Museum of Art has transformed weekly into a space for healing for children and educators.

If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, here's how to get help: In the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.

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