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After two suicides in Parkland, parents are looking for ways to help their children

Updated 9:45 PM ET, Mon March 25, 2019

(CNN) - Parents in Parkland, Florida, still coping with fallout from last year's school shooting face a new set of tough questions after recent suicides in the community.

"They're wondering, 'could this be my son or daughter?'" said Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

"We're still struggling to understand what's happening."

Sydney Aiello, a 2018 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killed herself last week. She survived the attack on Valentine's Day 2018 that killed 17 people at the Florida school -- including 14 students and three staff members.

Then, on Saturday, a current Stoneman Douglas student died in what police describe as "an apparent suicide." It's not yet clear whether it was related to last year's school shooting.

Nevertheless, community leaders are urging parents everywhere to be vigilant and proactive in talking to their kids about trauma.

The message bears exceptional weight in Parkland, which is still recovering from last year's traumatic event, said Petty, who started a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention after his daughter's death.

"I worry about the students, I worry about the teachers and staff," he said. "We're still clearly in trauma."

Parents 'can be part of the solution'

Members of the Stoneman Douglas community have been frank about their mental health struggles over the past year.

The school has tried to help by offering counseling and other resources to students, teachers and staff. But Petty and others say many suffer in silence, fearful of the stigma related to mental health issues.

Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky hopes the recent suicides underscore the importance of overcoming the stigma.

"We want the community to be talking about it. We can't end the stigma, we can't address the issues if we're not talking about them," Hunschofsky said,

The community is continually working to improve mental health resources, she said.

"One of the challenges has been matching the resources with the people who need them," she said. "When something like this happens there's no road map for it and you can never have enough resources."

Aiello, a Florida Atlantic University student, suffered from survivor's guilt and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, her mom told CNN affiliate WFOR.

In the wake of the suicides, the Parkland community is ramping up outreach.

Robocalls from Broward County Public Schools and Stoneman Douglas High School Co-Principal Teresa Hall encourage parents to speak to their children about suicide.

On the call, Hall tells parents to ask their children crisis questions from the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale.

On Sunday night, the school district, community leaders, law enforcement and concerned parents met to discuss how to address the trauma and identify possible warning signs, said Petty, who has another child who survived the attack.

The goal of the meeting was to equip parents with the right questions to ask and make them aware of resources should they need help, he said.

He shared three questions parents can ask their children, based on the Columbia protocol:

- Have you wished you could go to sleep and not wake up?

- Have you thought about hurting yourself?

- Have you thought about how you might accomplish this?

The beauty of those questions is parents don't need to be trained therapists to ask them, he said.

"They can be part of the solution," he said. "We really need to drive awareness. We need to make sure that everyone, especially parents, understand their child or loved one may be at risk."

The power of peer-to-peer communication

Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, the president of Children's Services Council of Broward County, also attended Sunday's meeting.

"One of the things that I have heard parents and children say is that nobody cares, and they just want us to get on with our lives. And I really want them to know that that's not true," she said.

"I just left a room full of 60 people who came on a moment's notice on a Sunday afternoon to show how much they care."

She said that peer-to-peer communication could be a powerful tool, as teenagers might not turn to their parents as a first resource.

"We want to harness the power of the young people to speak to each other," she said. That may include using Instagram, Snapchat or any other method that could "yield huge benefits."

MSD students use their experience to help others

In an example of such networking, MSD students have been reaching out beyond their own community to help others experiencing trauma.

Survivors began a letter-writing campaign last week to help families and communities affected by the March 15 shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The Parkland students first grew connected to the Christchurch community when they visited New Zealand in July 2018 on a learning and healing trip.

"We got letters after our tragedy. That was something that really surprised us," said Kai Koerber, a Stoneman Douglas senior who went on last year's trip.

"It's something that really warmed the hearts of people in my community. I think it will warm the hearts of people in Christchurch as well."

If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, here's how to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.


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