Columbine survivor Austin Eubanks's overdose death exposes the devastating psychological impact of school shootings
Eubanks' death, as well as those of two of the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, raises questions of the mental health resources available to the victims of such traumatic events
Austin Eubanks, one of the survivors of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 where 12 students and 1 teacher were murdered, was found dead at his home early Saturday. He was 37-years-old.
While no foul play is being suspected, his death was by no means a straightforward one.
Just 17 at the time of the school shooting, Eubanks had to go through the trauma of watching his best friend Corey DePooter die in front of his eyes as shooter Dylan Klebold walked up to the table they were hiding under and fatally shot him. Eubanks too was shot in the hand and the knee.
While he survived, the extent of his injuries saw him given opioids for pain relief.
As per his own admission, the physical and emotional distress he was experiencing in the aftermath meant the opioids provided him a means of escape, a consequence of which was an addiction that would haunt him for more than a decade.
Over the years, he was admitted into multiple residential treatment centers and it would only be at the age of 29 that he finally managed to accomplish long-term sobriety and work towards an admittedly brighter future.
Eubanks subsequently became a motivational public speaker and dedicated time to speaking about addiction and recovery, delving into various nonprofits and organizations that reached out to and helped those who were in situations not all too different from what he had experienced himself.
His work earned him respected positions in several nonprofit boards and rehab organizations, and it appeared as though he had turned a corner. But, behind the scenes and unbeknownst to most, he continued to struggle with his addiction.
Following his death, his family announced in a statement that he had "lost the battle with the very disease he fought so hard to help others face."
His case is by no means a unique one.
In March, we reported that two survivors of the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting which claimed 17 lives had taken their own lives just a few days apart from one another.
16-year-old Calvin Desir and 19-year-old Sydney Aiello both died just a week apart.
Sydney, like Eubanks, had lost her best friend during the school shooting and subsequently suffered from 'survivor's guilt' and post-traumatic stress disorder. While there was no such confirmation of 'survivor's guilt' from Calvin's family, such an assumption would not be a stretch by any means.
However, experts believe there isn't enough media coverage of the aftermath of such shootings.
Speaking to MEA Worldwide (MEAWW), Prof. Charles R. Figley, Director of the Tulane University Traumatology Institute, explained how these shootings influence the victims far beyond any physical injuries.
Figley said the mainstream media does not speak out about the impact on the family and friends, which is secondary trauma. The complexity of post-traumatic memories and reactions is also not explored. Nor is the additive impact of the shooting on average Americans’ sense of safety and hope.
"Trauma is a universal phenomenon that is both a cause and an effect of trauma and is expressed widely and globally in expressive art, historical descriptions, mental health, political and economic decisions and nearly every other aspect of life," he said.
"Trauma is like an irritant introduced into a system/group/situation that demands immediate attention to seek a sense of safety, security, and hope."
Research conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provided to MEA Worldwide similarly pointed out that survivors, friends and loved ones, first responders and recovery workers, and community members are at a high risk of experiencing emotional distress following shootings and similar events.
The research showed that the symptoms include feeling numb or like nothing matters, feeling helpless, worrying a lot of the time, feeling guilty, and feeling like you have to keep busy.
Most victims try to treat such symptoms through excessive smoking, drinking, or like in the case of Eubanks, abusing drugs, including prescriptive medication.
This is because there is often a coexistence of both a mental health and substance use disorder, with the National Institute of Mental Health stating, "Those who already had mental health problems or who have had traumatic experiences in the past, who are faced with ongoing stress, or who lack support from friends and family may be more likely to develop stronger symptoms and need additional help. Some people turn to alcohol or other drugs to cope with their symptoms."
Figley explained that this drug-use, as well as other efforts at self-medication, were a "desperate effort to feel whole, to get back to the person they were prior to the traumatic event" and slammed the state health departments for not doing enough to combat the problem.
Elinore F. McCance-Katz, the assistant secretary at SAMHSA, too, had highlighted this phenomenon of the intersection of substance use and mental health issues, referring a survey conducted by the organization which had found that 8.5 million people in the country were suffering from a substance use disorder and mental illness simultaneously.
We asked Figley if there were enough mental health resources available in the country to help victims of school shootings and prevent this downward spiral, and the answer was an immediate and emphatic "No."
"There are far too few social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and therapists trained in helping the traumatized," he said. "Those not trained often hurt more than help."
"There are also insufficient stories to help educate the public about trauma and how it is a normal and natural response to horrific and unsettling events, including but not limited to shootings," he added.
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