This guest blog post is by Sue Klebold, passionate advocate for brain health awareness and mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters at Columbine High School in 1999. She spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016 and you can watch her talk here.
It has been almost 18 years since my son and his friend killed twelve students and a teacher at Columbine High school, and injured more than twenty others before killing themselves. From the moment the tragedy happened, it seemed to belong to the planet rather than the community. Live news coverage of its evolution reached every corner of the world, and people across the globe seemed to know what was happening in the school before some of its victims did.
At the time of the tragedy, Americans rarely heard about school shootings, and 24/7, on-the-scene news coverage was in its infancy. Social media as we know it today didn’t exist. I didn’t own a cell phone, and I was just learning to use the Internet. I had no idea that my seventeen-year-old son could purchase guns without my knowledge or permission. I believed that suicide was something that happened in other families – not in mine – because I loved my children deeply and I believed that my love would protect them. I didn’t think about homicide because I’d never known anyone who was killed or who had killed someone else.
A lot has changed since the Columbine tragedy, but a lot hasn’t. We hear more about heartbreaking murder-suicide events in the news, but we are just beginning to consider the role suicidality might have played in the incident. Whatever concerns we may have had about youth suicide and teen depression in 1999 couldn’t have prepared us to accept the ongoing increase in these health problems nearly twenty years later. Despite growing efforts to mitigate depression and suicidal thoughts/actions in youth, we have not been able to reverse the rates that continue to inch upward.
As I began a journey of recovery after the tragedy, I tried to find a way to accept the horror my son perpetrated. In my desire to understand, I learned that if my son had gotten effective help in a timely manner, he probably would not have participated in the shootings or taken his own life. My eyes were opened to the extreme costs to society of not providing adequate care in a timely manner. The tragedy itself, followed by my own bouts of panic disorder after the shootings, convinced me that advocating for brain health was the most important work I could do.
Numerous efforts to reduce suicide rates and improve mental health care are in development around the world. Many of these focus on system improvements within schools, hospitals or the military. They rely on research from a broad spectrum of disciplines.
The umbrella of brain health is vast and it’s hard to know where to start. When I am asked what people can do when they struggle with lethal thoughts, the first thing I suggest is to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273- TALK (1-800-273-8255) or go to the website at http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Lifeline provide free and confidential support to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis all day, every day, across the U.S.
In my own efforts to raise awareness and improve services for those who struggle, I chunk the work into three major areas of focus.
1) We need to remove the psychological barriers that prevent people from seeking help. Too many people fear negative consequences from revealing their pain, or believe that their inability to function normally is a character flaw rather than an illness. Unfortunately, the better they hide their aberrant thoughts, the more difficult it becomes for others to recognize their need for care. (This is what happened with my son.)
2) We need to increase the general public’s knowledge about mental illness and the recognize signs that someone’s brain health may be deteriorating. This includes learning better ways to talk, to listen and to respond.
3) Sadly, those who know they need help can’t always connect with professionals who can provide a continuum of effective, affordable, evidence-based interventions and treatment. Much work needs to be done to educate professionals, and improve the systems in which they work.
The work is there and there is plenty for each of us to do. Let’s get going.