Disclaimer: This story includes acts of self-harm.
He had been preparing for this moment practically his whole life. Even before he learned to read, Edwin Danahy was directed with military precision for a school shooter drill. The path of the drill went from his elementary school classroom into the hallway then outside to safety, his tiny hands raised in the air with an urgency he couldn’t yet understand.
Twelve years later on Nov. 14, 2019, the 17-year-old senior instantly knew what was happening when he heard two popping sounds and saw students running outside his first-period English class at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. Just as he’d been trained, he worked quickly and efficiently, knowing time was of the essence. He learned that calls and texts would clog up the phone lines. So, he and his classmates used Snapchat to communicate as they crouched behind his teacher’s desk.
But first, Danahy sent a round of text messages to his mom and dad.
“Have you left the building yet? Have you been evacuated? Please confirm.”
“Alive. Still in classroom.”
Two hours later– before details would emerge of the Saugus High School shooting by a 16-year-old that left two students dead and three others injured– police escorted Danahy through the quad and into the school gym to be interviewed.
“It looked like a ghost land,” he said. “You could tell that everyone was just there and disappeared because there were binders open on all the tables and backpacks just left everywhere.”
After numerous interviews by police, he finally reunited with his family four hours later.
To Danahy, living through a school shooting didn't come as much of a shock.
“It was less of, if this happens than when. It felt like our time had just come," he recalled during an interview in his family’s kitchen. "It wasn't like, ‘oh my god, I can't believe this happened to us.’ It was like, ‘oh, that finally happened.’”
It was what came later that he couldn’t anticipate. Nearly six months after the tragedy, Edwin and his mom, Joelle, said they still can’t stop thinking about it. Edwin, an honor’s student, had to drop out of one of his classes to cope with the psychological toll he and his mother faced after surviving the shooting. It was the class he shared with the shooter.
“It was just too much. It was a relief to stop,” he said.
Since then, he’s gone through times of significant stress and irritability, especially when he feels “rushed to heal” or return to normal by teachers and school officials.
In the initial days that followed the shooting, the Danahys said they felt like they were living in a bad dream. They live less than a mile from the high school and the constant sound of helicopters circling overhead only created more distress in the wake of their trauma. When the helicopters– and the noise– finally retreated, Joelle insisted Edwin seek counseling as she was still coping with her own shock.
He was reluctant about it but went anyway.
“First,” he said, “I felt like I was just too raw to talk to anyone. But it was nice to talk to someone. It did help.”
The Danahy family, though lucky they were able to find help in the aftermath of the Saugus school shooting, tells a story that, sadly, has become all too familiar across the nation.
School shootings have increased exponentially in the U.S. and seem to have become a normal part of American life. It’s hard to draw concrete numbers on these kinds of shootings because the data on gun violence is scant: U.S. law has limited federal funding for gun violence research. But an examination of a variety of databases shows that since Columbine, more than two decades ago, there have been more than 200 school shootings in the U.S. that have killed or injured nearly 800 students.
And survivors continue to suffer. Nearly a third of mass shooting survivors will experience post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the American Psychological Association. Those who survive a shooting are also at greater risk for mental health issues, like depression, anxiety and acute stress disorders, in comparison to those who experience other types of trauma such as natural disasters, according to the National Center for PTSD.
From active shooter drills to metal detectors to arming teachers, state legislators have proposed various solutions to combat the problem– but making access to mental health services has not been high up on the list. And the politics surrounding gun violence, pitting NRA activists against public health advocates calling for gun control measures, hasn’t helped to speed up the process.
Another Saugus family has been going through their own healing process after living through the shooting.
The trauma hit close to home for Brandy Roggentien, a behaviorist who specializes in phobias and trauma, when her 16-year-old daughter Megan (who asked that her last name be kept confidential) had to run for her life during the shooting. Roggentien had to apply the tools she gives her patients on herself and her family, but it hasn’t been easy. Megan, who said she struggles with depression began exhibiting signs of PTSD. Roggentien said she’s had to use credit cards to pay for her daughter’s therapy while she copes with her own healing process.
For days after the incident, Roggentien said she wasn’t able to move. She could only cry.
“Physically, mentally, emotionally– I couldn’t function on any level,” she said. “I know what to do for other people. I know what the textbooks and the research say but it’s really hard to implement it for yourself.”
On the morning of the shooting, Megan ran to the closest sign of safety she could find‒ a random home across the street from the school. Her mother happened to be on her way to the school to drop off the cell phone Megan had forgotten earlier.
Roggentien said most of her trauma comes from being forced to make the unthinkable decision between the safety of one daughter or the 8-year-old who was in the car with her. With police and SWAT guns drawn, first responders surrounded the streets as she made the split-second decision to drive between them to get to the house that Megan was hiding in.
“That was the most awful feeling in the world — the feeling of having to choose between the safety of my two children,” she said with tears in her eyes.
In the days after the shooting, Megan rejected her mother’s advice to seek counseling. Instead, she spent time with friends because her insomnia made her not want to sleep alone.
“We know as adults that debriefing and talking is good, but teenagers are anti-debriefing,” Roggentien said. “They think it’s wrong or more traumatizing.”
Roggentien described her daughter to be “happy as a clam” in the first days following the shooting. Megan’s psychological distress didn’t appear until two weeks later.
After she returned to school– and the site of trauma– she came home and began to cut herself. As she was getting ready to leave for school, her mother noticed her arms. She told her mother it was cat scratches. Roggentien knew that it wasn’t.
“For whatever reason, she didn't want to live anymore after the shooting,” said Roggentien. “PTSD webs out and can look like a different thing. It looks like depression and anxiety, but I always say these are just symptoms if you've had a traumatic event.”
After an immediate psychological assessment by Los Angeles County Department of Health experts, Megan began to see a weekly trauma counsellor who specializes in PTSD. It took three months, but both Roggentien and Megan said it helped. Today, she is in the “normal” range of suicidality and continues to see her therapist every two weeks or once a month, depending on how she is coping.
“I was, and still am, dealing with depression,” Megan said. “I still get scared by loud noises like balloons popping, but I’ve gotten a lot better through therapy.”
Defining post-traumatic stress
The psychological impact of trauma affects each survivor differently. The healing process looked different for Roggentien than it did for her daughter. Joelle’s and Edwin’s recoveries were also not identical. However, reflecting on the event and, more importantly, physically confronting it can be a recurring through-line in healing.
In the days following the shooting, Roggentien felt an overwhelming compulsion to write about her experience in a 2,000-word essay that she shared on the Saugus parent’s Facebook group. Roggentien said revisiting the trauma through writing helped her to heal.
“I write with sadness, confusion, blessings, anger, and through a skewed perspective,” she wrote in the post. “The unique lens of a trauma therapist, a ‘fixer’ who had witnessed a heinous unfixable wound inflicted on an entire school of innocent children and families that did not deserve to carry this pain for life.”
She read the piece over and over– on the couch, in the bathtub, at dinner– until she felt like she was ready to move on.
“That was a pure PTSD moment pouring out of me,” said Roggentien. “I could never write about that event like that ever again. In doing that, I did my own therapeutic vomiting and reprocessed it every single day.”
Dr. Jeff Sugar, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Southern California’s Keck School Medicine, studies trauma in children. PTSD, he said, has a protective element that dates back to primitive times.
“PTSD can be understood as a way of avoiding experiencing the same trauma,” Dr. Sugar explained, “because it's possibly dangerous. It's reasonable that we have reactions to things that are similar to the original trauma but not exactly like it because in evolutionary times, those would've been actual dangers.”
According to the most current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychological Association identifies the criteria for PTSD in children age 6 to 17 as sleep disorders, like insomnia or night terrors, anger, depression, irritability, mania, and anxiety. And similar to adults who experience PTSD, children are also at risk for suicidal ideation or attempts.
The stressors for PTSD also extend beyond direct exposure to bystander exposure– learning that a friend or relative was exposed. This means that after a school shooting, an entire community is often psychologically affected. The key difference of coping with surviving a shooting versus a natural disaster, Roggentien said, is anger.
“I have never seen parents in a community angrier in my life than during and after this,” Roggentien said, adding that she witnessed people polarized over the shooter’s upbringing, access to firearms and motivation. “The fighting has been horrific among parents, administrators, teachers, students. Everybody is so mad at this senseless act of violence. Whereas in a natural disaster there is nothing to blame but nature.”
The feelings of anger were echoed by the Danahys.
When asked about their initial response to the shooting, “I was pissed,” said Edwin. “I was very, very angry.”
“You really felt that way?” Joelle asked her son. “Because I felt the same way.”
According to Dr. Sugar, the likelihood of developing PTSD may be less dependent on the traumatic event itself than on what happens afterward. This includes reintroducing an individual back into the feared stimulus.
After the shooting, Megan said the last place she wanted to be was at school. Going back to the site of trauma may seem counterintuitive, but Dr. Sugar and others insist it’s necessary.
“The avoidance symptoms, like shutting down, not going out, not walking by or going into the school, is self-reinforcing,” he said.
If the standard treatment is to progressively introduce someone back into the space where the trauma happened, then returning a shooting survivor back to school is part of the healing process– as long as there is no perceived danger there. That may not be the case in the U.S.
Another hurdle to handling PTSD is the lengthy timeline of psychological response. Since it usually can’t be diagnosed until one month after the trauma, anything before that is seen by psychiatry experts as a short-term reaction like Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).
Teenagers don’t make it easy for their parents to look for these symptoms.
“That's one of the hard things,” said Joelle. “How do you separate irritability that's tied to trauma or the fact that you're a 17-year-old-boy? It's hard to figure out what's the cause.”
Access to trauma counseling signals an overburdened system
Joelle took out a thick white folder. She laid it across her kitchen table. There were white forms, yellow forms, green forms. There were forms on medical expenses, mini-booklets on grief, forms on government services. They spread out to cover the kitchen table. It’s where she sits to wade through the bureaucracy of the mental health insurance policies and government services as she tries to seek services for herself and her son.
“This is my life now,” she said with an exasperated laugh. “I don’t volunteer at the school anymore, I just learn about trauma.”
Communities like the one from Saugus High School are left to pick up the pieces and "take care of their own." Even for families with health insurance, gaining access to mental health services can be tedious. And for those uninsured, it can be altogether impossible.
In the days after the shooting, there were plenty of mental health counsellors available for students. This was the first school shooting in L.A. County history and they were ready to help. They came from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, some driving as far as Inglewood to Santa Clarita, to make sure students had access to counseling services.
In the weeks after, though, the services began to dwindle. The Danahys got a counselor for Edwin but were initially wait-listed due to an influx in demand for therapy services. He eventually saw a counsellor who said that Edwin didn’t exhibit signs of PTSD but showed signs of stress and trauma. Families who aggressively sought services at the beginning were fortunate enough to find counselors.
Often symptoms of trauma like isolation and avoidance can further complicate mental health treatment. Those who waited just a few weeks to see how their symptoms developed, like Joelle and Edwin, were out of luck– appointments had already filled up. Thousands in the community were affected and there just weren’t enough psychologists to go around.
Parents struggling with their own second-hand trauma while also caring for a child’s healing created additional burdens.
“There are times that Edwin is much better than I am,” said Joelle. “It’s been a defining moment of my life. It’d be nice to have a day without a reminder that our life has changed. I don’t have that yet — and I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen.”
Roggentien, a counselor herself, said there isn’t enough incentive for therapists to take insured patients for a variety of reasons: Insurance requires a diagnosis, there are scheduling restrictions, and it shares half of her revenue. She can’t afford to take insured clients because she needs to pay for her own daughter’s trauma counseling.
“If I see you without insurance, without diagnosing you or anyone telling me how frequently I need to see you and I charge you $200 an hour, I get that whole $200. If I go through insurance, they get $100 and I get $100. It’s like asking me to sign up to more work for less money.”
With legislation stalled on gun control, mitigating the impact of trauma from mass shootings through mental health services could be the next best thing to damage control. Edwin thinks that lawmakers should focus on mental health accessibility for survivors and their families.
“Everyone should be able to get the help that they don't think they need,” said Edwin. “Or even if they do think they need it, because mental health is very silent. You don't really know who it's affecting.”
Nonetheless, the trauma of surviving a school shooting will be a lifelong reality for these families.
In January, after the students resumed classes at Saugus High School, a golf cart ran over debris. It made a loud popping noise. Immediately, students ran for their lives, just as they’d done three months earlier.
Then, a school administrator came over the loudspeaker to let them know it was safe– a false alarm.
But for the Saugus kids, their response to that kind of sound was automatic.
“The brain will never forget a traumatic event,” said Roggentien. “You can reprocess it, you can desensitize yourself to it, but you can never ever forget it.”