By Paul Gionfriddo, MHA President and CEO
It was a gloomy, rainy day yesterday as I flew into Ft. Lauderdale. Fitting for the week, as today marks a year since the horrifying massacre in Parkland, Florida. It is my first time back to Broward County since the shooting, which happened just 35 miles from my home in Lake Worth.
A lot has happened to me during the past year – some good, some tragic. My wife retired after nine years as CEO of MHA’s Palm Beach County affiliate. I moved from Florida back to Connecticut. I lost a daughter to cancer who was precious to me.
And I couldn’t help but wonder as the airplane drifted through the clouds how these things fit within the context of this particular time and place. I have experienced change and loss, but I was at least prepared for those things.
I couldn’t say the same for the children and parents who sent loved ones to school that day, without a clue as to how profoundly their lives were about to change.
Last year on February 14, a gunman took the lives of seventeen students and adults, injured seventeen more, and shattered the lives of countless others. Survivors called out immediately for change, with the attention of national media. It felt like the wake-up call we failed to heed after Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook.
Part of the call was that we needed to prevent gun violence. Another equally important part of the call was that we needed to address the trauma of the survivors. Those voices were loud and persuasive, and we had hope that change was finally coming.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, we at MHA made this important point over and over again: We have Level One trauma centers all over the country to deal with injuries to physical health. But there is no such thing as a Level One trauma center to deal with injuries to mental health.
People with injuries to physical health get weeks, months, and years of physical therapy until they heal from those physical wounds. But people with injuries to their mental health are lucky to get a few hours of help for their mental wounds, before they are expected to heal themselves.
I was talking to a group of people last night, all CEOs of national patient advocacy organizations. As the time passed and we shared our own personal stories, I was struck by this one similarity. We had all experienced the trauma of loss. A couple of us had recently lost young people dear to us. A couple of others had lost parents when they themselves were still children. But whether these losses occurred recently or decades ago, we all still felt the trauma of the loss as deeply as we did the day it happened.
We need to think of that when we think of the parents, faculty and staff, and students who lived through the Parkland trauma. We need to think of the victims and the people who still love them.
We know how this feels. We know how much pain loss brings.
And we have to believe that we can do something about it. We can heal people from trauma. We can even prevent future trauma. But we must commit to mental health - before horrible crises come. If we act before Stage 4.
There’s a long list of things that have been done in Broward County since the shooting. Most of those have focused on public safety. You have to go all the way down to the bottom of the list to find the $8 million that the people of Broward County – not the public officials – committed to mental health in schools.
Eight million dollars. It’s a start. But it is only one county. This is a big country, and we still have a long way to go.
On this first anniversary of the Parkland shooting, on behalf of everyone who has been subjected to the terror and tragedy of sudden and profound loss, maybe the time is right for more than just thoughts and prayers for victims.
It is time to act; no, it’s past time to act.
There is no time like the present to insist that elected officials across the country put more money behind their thoughts and prayers.