November 19, 2015

Science, compassion can prevent violence: Sandy Hook father

What do you do when your only child is murdered in a brutal, sensationalized act of violence?

Jeremy Richman, Ph.D., speaks about the foundation he and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, formed following the death of their daughter, Avielle, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting three years ago. (photo by Steve Green)

by Marilyn Holt

What do you do when your only child is murdered in a brutal, sensationalized act of violence?

For Jeremy Richman, Ph.D., and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, the answer was to take positive action. Three days after their 6-year-old daughter, Avielle, was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, they had developed the framework for a foundation dedicated to preventing violence.

“This was so, so unimaginably horrible,” Richman said Monday during a lecture at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “We said we don’t want anyone else to suffer this way.”

Rather than focus on gun regulation or public safety issues, the Avielle Foundation, named for their daughter, stresses compassion and mental health, or as Richman put it, “brain health.”

“We wanted to play to our strengths,” said Richman, a former postdoctoral fellow in Pharmacology at Vanderbilt and former pharmaceutical company scientist. “We’re scientists. We ask why questions all the time. That’s what we do.”

Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, before turning the gun on himself.

But stigmatizing the mentally ill as somehow morally flawed will not solve the problem, Richman said.

“The brain is just another organ — it’s biochemical in nature, and so are our behaviors. It’s chemistry, not character,” he said.

However, Richman also says that “just because they’re biochemical doesn’t mean we’re fated to them.” Behavior may be biochemical, but we can affect the biochemistry by making good choices — protecting the brain from traumatic injury, staying active and staying connected with others.

Richman’s talk on Monday did not focus on the shootings, instead taking a broad approach to violence.

According to him, “We’re really interested in the root cause of violence, and violence can take on many, many forms, and there’s many tools of violence.”

Ultimately, preventing violence will require continued investment in brain research, and compassionate and engaged communities willing to see violence as an illness that should be treated, not punished. Richman and Hensel created The Avielle Foundation to focus on this very thing.

“The mission is very simple: it’s to prevent violence and build compassion through fostering neuroscience research community engagement and education.”

Toward this goal, the foundation will soon be announcing the awardees of a number of grants intended to foster neuroscience research. They also have engaged in community education projects, including working with a number of interns in high school and college, many of whom are from Sandy Hook.

“I feel very proud of the legacy that my wife and I are leaving in honor of our daughter Avielle.”
Richman’s talk was part of the Flexner Dean’s Lecture series and was the 2015 Felts Lecture in the Humanities, named for the late Philip W. Felts, M.D., former assistant dean of Student Affairs at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.