Sandy Hook parents turn to science to combat violence

NEWTOWN, Conn. (WTNH)–The world stopped on December 14, 2012.

For many, especially here in Connecticut, the moment they heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is ingrained in their memory.

It’s a moment Dr. Jeremy Richman and his wife still live with.

The moment they learned their six-year old daughter Avielle was killed along with 19 of her classmates and six educators.

“Losing Avielle hurt then and hurt now,” said Richman from his Newtown office. “There’s no words that really describe the loss and the feeling of emptiness and missing her profoundly that never goes away and is there every waking moment.”

Dr. Richman and his wife Jennifer are scientists that focus on brain health.

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The questions of “why?” and “how?” their only child was taken from them consumed their minds in the days following the shooting.

It lead them to create the Avielle Foundation less than a week after the shooting.

“When we were faced with this infinite heartbreak we decided we’d play to our strengths as scientists to see if we could answer the “why” questions everyone had,” said Richman. “To see if we can understand what happens in the brain that leads to violence.”

The foundation relies on grassroots support and fundraising.

In the nearly five years since its creation, Richman says the organizations has had several studies published. One received more than $7 million in grants to study the brains of identical twins to find out why one has aggressive anti-social behaviors and the other doesn’t.

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“We need people to not be afraid of the invisible mental world and recognize behaviors come from this organ – the brain,” Richman said. “The brain is just another organ like the heart, liver or kidneys. It can be healthy or unhealthy and we have to work to keep it healthy.”

Dr. Richman says removing the stigma around mental and brain health is the first step.

“We want to see violence as the disease that is and approach it from a medical fashion,” said Richman. “Look at it as a preventative, interventive and curative view as opposed to view we do now as a purely reactionary view.”

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Life has moved on for Richman and his wife in the five years since the shooting. After losing their only child, the couple has given birth to two more children. He knows there will be difficult questions from them in the future about the sister they never met.

“We have to very easily walk that path over time,” said Richman. “Those are going to be very hard conversations to have.”

Richman believes hard conversations about uncomfortable topics are needed for any real change to occur. He points to the foundation’s motto – “You can imagine”. He says it stems from one of the most common things he heard from people since the shooting, “I can’t imagine that happening to my child.” Richman says people can and need to imagine it for ant change to happen.

To learn more about The Avielle Foundation, go to www.aviellefoundation.org.