Can we reprogramme our brains to reduce violence?

Shaylyn Fahey, a 23-year-old End Violence Champion, is committed to finding out. 

On December 14, 2012, a small American town was rocked by a nearly unimaginable crime: a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot 20 first-graders, six adults, and his mother before shooting himself.

Shaylyn Fahey was just 15 years old at the time – and eight years later, she is still trying to make sense of what her community was forced to live through. Instead of backing away, however, Shay threw herself even deeper into what she had experienced, leveraging her interests in neuroscience, psychology and health care to better understand the root causes of violence.

Part of this work was with the Avielle Foundation, an organisation established by Jen and Jeremy Richman after their daughter, 6-year-old Avielle, was killed in the shooting. In the years since, Shay has not only grappled with trauma from the 2012 massacre, but from the loss of Jeremy himself, who took his own life in March of 2019.

End Violence spoke to Shay, now 23, about her experiences living through these tragedies, her passion for violence prevention, and her plans for the future.

Shay at her lab at Yale University.
Shaylyn Fahey conducting neuroscience research at Yale University, first as an intern and then as a post-graduate research assistant. Shay was connected to this opportunity through the Avielle Foundation.

1. What do you remember from the day of the Sandy Hook shooting?

Growing up in Newtown, Connecticut, the shooting in Sandy Hook had a massive impact on my life. It happened just a few days after my 15th birthday. I remember feeling terrified. At school, we were in lockdown – and though we knew something was happening in our town, we didn’t know exactly what it was or where it was happening. The anxiety and fear were pervasive.

After we found out more, I remember feeling almost numb. 26 people were dead. Twenty of them were children. What could possibly come next?

Hearing a 6-year-old say, “I used to have a neighbour, but then he died,” is not an easy thing to stomach. 

I was also a gymnastics coach for younger children – and a shocking number of the kids that I worked with were among those affected. I remember walking into the gym, which was always my oasis, and waiting to see which kids walk through the door for class. My class, which normally had 18 to 20 kids, now had five. Hearing a 6-year-old say, “I used to have a neighbour, but then he died,” is not an easy thing to stomach.

2. What impact did the shooting have on the Newtown community?

After the shooting, I was so overwhelmed. I remember thinking: I’m 15. What can I do? How can I possibly do anything besides try to cope with this? I had to go to school. I had to talk to teachers. And I had to go to so many funerals. I also felt such guilt. The fact that I could laugh with my friends on a Friday night – I’d immediately think of the fact that 26 families could never laugh again. We were being pulled this way and that with teachers and parents trying to help us heal, but we didn’t have the autonomy to say what was and wasn’t working.

Today, children in Newtown are still feeling the aftereffects of the trauma we experienced. They might wonder why there are always armed police officers at the doors of their schools, or feel anxiety coming off their parents or neighbours.

Overall, I think the shooting had a severe impact on Newtown’s adolescent population. For many of us, it shattered our sense of safety and our sense of trust. To this day, I think a lot of us still battle with not feeling safe and feeling anxious. It’s taken years to deal with these feelings, and part of me thinks I’ll always be dealing with them.

3. How did that experience lead you to violence prevention work?

After that experience, I couldn’t stop wondering why the shooting had happened, and how someone could commit such a terrible act of violence. I had always liked science and was drawn to neuroscience to answer those questions. I ended up applying to Bucknell University to study the topic further.

I also began working as a firefighter and an EMT – something I continued to do for the next five-and-a-half years. Ironically, I threw myself into traumatic situations, doing whatever I could to help people dealing with the hardest moments of their life.

Once I got to school, I attended an event where I met Jeremy, a father of a child killed at Sandy Hook. He and his wife Jen were scientists, and after the tragedy, they wanted to do something that played to their strengths.

Jeremy and Jen took their own unique, scientific approach to the situation by digging deep, diving into the brain and bridging the behavioural and biochemical aspects of what makes us violent or compassionate. They created the Avielle Foundation to look at what could we do with children – at a young age – to promote compassion and prevent violence in three ways: research, community engagement and education.

To me, that sounded fascinating. So much of what we know from research is that the way your brain develops comes from how you process and deal with trauma. Many times, kids won’t even know they are dealing with trauma until it starts to come out in their behaviour. Opening that door for children – especially at a young age – is so important, not only because it allows children to cope, but because it allows children to heal.

3. What did you do with and through the Avielle Foundation?

I began working for the Foundation over the summers by helping with fundraising, organizing speaker series, and coordinating our Brain Health First Aide courses. During the school year, I’d help behind the scenes, supporting with research, finances and other aspects of the Foundation’s work.

I think that the most impactful, important contribution I had was the coordination of our Brainstorm Speaker Series – a huge year-and-a-half long event that brought in different experts from across the neuroscience, violence, compassion and mental health fields. Every month, we’d have a new speaker discuss these topics with Newtown and the surrounding towns, bringing people together to talk about mental health and, as a result, reducing stigma. It allowed those in the audience to have open, vulnerable conversations about a really vital topic, regardless of their age or background.

I was also involved with the Life is Good Kids Foundation, which helps children and communities who experience trauma. That includes systemic or socioeconomic trauma, hurricane and disaster trauma, or, in our case, mass shootings. Life is Good created a programme – Playmakers – that helps children recognise and manage their emotions through healthy outlets at a pivotal point in their growth. Life is Good and the Avielle Foundation teamed up, along with a few other Newtown foundations, to train all of Newtown’s educators in the playmaker programme, providing them with resources to integrate the initiative into the classroom or afterschool programming. Having teachers who promote optimism and talk about the tough subjects – including the fact that bad things happen and happened to us – is transformative.

In the fall, we’re actually going to begin working with children directly – rather than training adults – to bring practices of optimism, happiness and healing straight to students. This whole programme gives students a chance to express what they are feeling, deal with those emotions, and know that what they are experiencing is okay.

I also helped run the Foundation’s intern programme. I saw kids of all ages who were really passionate about preventing violence, and really interested in improving mental health. That gave me a lot of hope. When I was in eighth or ninth grade, I never wanted to talk about being anxious or sad. Through Avielle, I saw a new generation that is so willing to talk about these things. It’s inspiring.

4. What kind of overlap did you see between the fields of neuroscience and violence prevention?

Jeremy would always say that we knew more about the surface of Mars than we do about our own brains – and that was just not okay. There was a reason that the Newtown massacre happened. And in order to get to the bottom of that, we needed to look deeper into why – and how – violence like this could happen.

Jeremy spoke at schools and colleges about how we need to understand violence to really end it. There are specific, scientific ways to end violence – and at the same time, specific ways to promote compassion. One way the Foundation did this was through Brain Health First Aide courses, which we provided to teachers, police officers, and anyone working with kids. The course looked at the warning signs of violence in children, and dove into what to look for, when to intervene, and how to detect disorders that might give an individual a predisposition to violence. We eventually created both an adolescent and adult course, based on existing curriculums, which we implemented throughout our community.
 

 

I didn’t teach the course, but I would help with them. At the time, I was in college studying neuroscience and psychology, so these things weren’t that strange to me. But for a lot of people, these courses were the first time they had ever heard a lot of these concepts, like what mania or bipolar disorder was, and how you could see compassion light up parts of the brain.

I was still a kid – I still thought adults knew everything – but after the training, I heard so many people talk about how helpful the course was. I kept hearing them say things like, I didn’t know this is something I should look out for, or, I thought that was just a teenager being moody. The training made a lot of people open their eyes and figure out what to do about the warning signs they were seeing. This was almost even more pronounced in the youth courses. I saw kids’ faces change as we talked about things to help stress and anxiety. They’d say things like, Oh my God – I’m not alone. I don’t just have to feel crazy, weird or like a misfit. I can change this. We ended up giving about 25 of these courses to different groups in our community and in surrounding towns.

The Foundation has also done a lot of grassroots fundraising to fund ongoing research that covered neuroscience and violence prevention. At this point, we’ve funded half a million dollars of research through various grants, all focused on exploring either violence or compassion. At the same time, we brought awareness of those studies – and what they found – to our community.

Still, we have so much further to go. Nothing made that clearer than when Jeremy ended his life a few years later.

5. How did Jeremy’s death affect you and the work you were doing?

I was angry. Probably angrier than I’ve ever been. My mentor – the doctor who I wanted to be – had committed the ultimate act of mental illness. I didn’t think I would have the strength to keep talking about all of this [mental health and violence].

Jeremy’s death was devastating, but it also was the perfect example of what we’d been talking about the entire time: the ripple effects of violence, and of violence against children especially. Jeremy was talking about mental health so much that he never got a release from the topic.

Jeremy had all the tools in his toolbox, and he still took his own life. What does that say about violence and its impact? 

Most of the adults couldn’t deal with it; I could barely deal with it. But I had the interns under my wing, and I needed to help these young people – many of whom were in their most formative years – process what had happened. Jeremy was their mentor, too. When Jeremy took his life, we were also in the middle of a speaker series. Though we took a break (and I took a week off at school), I understood that we needed to keep going to let the community know we weren’t giving up on prevention of violence.

In the end, Jeremy’s death made me believe that we need this type of work more than we ever thought. We need this education more than we ever knew. Jeremy had all the tools in his toolbox, and he still took his own life. What does that say about violence and its impact?

6. With that belief in hand, where will you go next?

I’m definitely not finished thinking about this issue. This fall, I’ll be headed to medical school in Virginia. I want to focus on treating children who have experienced traumatic situations – especially in the emergency room.

As an EMT, I’ve so often had to bring people to the ER for things that were so clearly mental health-related but labelled so wrong. They would sit in the ER for five, six, seven hours before someone from psych would even see them – or they would get discharged because they “calmed down.” I couldn’t bear that. I know a lot of that comes from a stretch for resources in hospitals, that’s something we need to change.

I want to ensure people, especially children, get the mental health support they need – immediately – in their time of crisis. It’s something that will affect them, and potentially those around them, for the rest of their lives. In the meantime, I’ll keep working to keep Jeremy’s message alive in a way that honours what he was about while acknowledging how he left the world. It might be hard for us to keep going, but his death has shown us that now more than ever, we don’t have a choice.

About End Violence Champions

The End Violence Champion series aims to highlight individuals working across the violence prevention spectrum to make the world safer for children. Every month, we will feature someone working on this challenge from a different part of the world, shedding light on their impact and the efforts of their affiliated organisation, company or institution. 

Do you know an End Violence Champion? Reach out to elissa.miolene@end-violence.org to cast a nomination.