Parkland parents and teachers seek help at mental health forum after two student suicides

One parent can’t convince a child to get help.

Another struggles with having “difficult conversations” with their children about what’s bothering them.

And a Marjory Stoneman Douglas teacher who is so overwhelmed by the trauma of the shootings doesn’t know what to say or do to help the students.

Those were only a few of the dozens of people who reached out for help — either in person or by posting questions on social media that were streamed live during the Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Town Hall Wednesday evening in Coral Springs.

City leaders and mental health professionals convened the emergency meeting to help kids, their parents and educators after the suicides of two Douglas students — one a 16-year-old sophomore, and the other a 19-year-old recent graduate — in the past 10 days.

Their deaths came a month after the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at the Parkland high school on Feb. 14, 2018, which took the lives of 17 students and faculty members.

“While mental health resources were put in place in the wake of the tragedy of MSD, many people have not utilized them or perhaps don’t know how to go about discussing the topic with their children,” Lynne Martzall, a spokeswoman for Coral Springs, said to a full commission chambers. “The mental health and well-being of our children must be made a priority.”

Martzall asked a panel of five representatives of mental health agencies — including 211 Broward County and Florida Initiative for Suicide Prevention — to answer questions on an index card submitted by the audience or posted live on Twitter and Facebook.

Heather Chapman said after the shooting, parents “were flooded with resources,” but many — including herself — didn’t know where to start.

She has a 17-year-old Douglas student, who survived the shooting and is now a senior. While Chapman said she has been open to getting help, her 13-year-old daughter, an eighth-grader who will attend MSD next year, will not ask for help.

“It’s hard as a parent, because I know she is struggling and keeping it to herself,” she said.

The suicides of the two Douglas students have heightened her concerns. The family of Sydney Aiello, who graduated from Douglas in June, attributed their daughter’s March 17 death to “survivor’s guilt.” The family of Calvin Desir, who died on Saturday, did not publicly discuss his death.

“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions,” Chapman said.

During the more than hourlong meeting, mental health professionals offered concrete advice to parents.

Among their suggestions:

Do not be afraid to ask your child if they have had suicidal thoughts, as it’s important to have frank conversations with teenagers.

Never assume a child is “just trying to get attention.” Listen to your child’s concerns.

Admit to your child that having difficult conversations isn’t easy for you, either.

Know your child’s friends, as sometimes they will be the ones who can clue you in.

“Connecting is the starting point,” said Judith Aronson-Ramos, who is part of Professionals United for Parkland, a group of mental health professionals who have organized to help the Parkland community.

‘One common concern in the audience was not knowing where to turn for help.

“It’s been difficult to understand through the clutter of messaging,” said Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, with the Children Services Council of Broward County.

Calling 211 is an excellent starting point, the mental health experts told the parents. The agency serves as a routing system to 4,000 agencies that can help with various issues, including suicide prevention and mental health.

Parent Liz Deitsch said the town hall opened up more options for her. The mother of three has one son who is a student at Douglas and two other children who have graduated.

“There is no road map to being a parent,” she said. “As a mom you want to make it better. But we don’t always know how.”

Resources

The University of Miami Health System’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences is dedicated to helping the Parkland community. If you or your child need help, contact Patty Galvis at 305-355-9021 or 305-213-5688.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
You can also dial: 2-1-1 or 954-740-6731, the county’s agency that works with social services and mental health organizations. If you prefer not to call, you can text “FL” to 741741 for a live counselor.