“As parents we often try to fix our children’s problems,” said Sue Klebold, author of A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, a memoir exploring what she has learned about her son, Dylan Klebold, one of two teenage shooters who killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.
Sue Klebold said that she has learned over the years that her desire to fix her son’s problems might have harmed her communication with him.
“Our children say, ‘I don’t like how I look,’ and we say, ‘Oh no, you look great,’” Klebold said. “But instead, we should say, ‘tell me more about that.’” She said it is much more important to try to listen as children and teens share their thoughts.
“Don’t try to fix your children – try to draw them out.” Klebold said, in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS News.
“When the tragedy first happened, I was really in a state of denial. I couldn’t believe that he did those things people were saying that he did – I thought he had been tricked, something had gone wrong.”
She says that it was months later when she saw evidence from police investigators that she “really got to see Dylan the way others had seen him during this tragedy.”
As she worked with mental health experts and evaluated the journals and websites where Dylan and Eric Harris, the other killer, detailed their deadly plans, she said: “I could see for Dylan, he just wanted his life to be over and I think that was his main motivator.”
The real challenge is knowing when a change in behavior could be life threatening,” she said.
“It’s very difficult to distinguish between normal adolescent behavior and when someone is really struggling,” Klebold said. She is donating the book’s proceeds to mental health research.
Coni Sanders, whose father, Dave Sanders, was a teacher at Columbine, and among those murdered, said, “It’s not natural to suspect these kinds of horrifying acts – we don’t look for it, why would we?”
Sanders now runs her own counseling and assessment private practice, where she works with adults undergoing court-ordered mental health treatment for violent crimes.
“I wondered from the first moments what happened to those boys,” Sanders said in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS News, referring to Harris and Klebold. “It felt shameful to wonder what happened to them, since my father was murdered and the whole nation was at a standstill.”
But that question stayed with her throughout her studies, and guides her in the work she does now as a mental health care provider.
“It bothers me that we have to have such a horror before mental health becomes a priority,” Sanders said. “Why are we focusing on first responders – and not pre-responders?”
After the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, Gov. Hickenlooper pushed to expand mental health care, including walk-in crisis clinics, a 24-7 mental health emergency hot line and a mobile crisis center. The goal is to provide access both to those suffering a crisis and to those who are worried or impacted by another individual.
“We often see after a crisis has occurred of some sort, people say, ‘You know, I thought something was going on, but I didn’t know what to do about it,’” said Dr. Carl Clark, the CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver. “That’s what this is all about.”
Clark, Sanders and Klebold agreed that the new programs are a step in the right direction, but not enough.
“I believe mental health care is changing, but there’s a long way to go,” Klebold said. “Not just with children, but for everybody. We need to remove stigmas, and treat mental health as just a part of overall health.”
“Colorado is largely rural and the San Luis Valley is the size of Connecticut,” Clark said. In rural areas, the system is much tougher to access. “The system is there, but it is still difficult to make it work.”
For Sanders, increasing the availability and quality of mental health care is critical, but she still finds it hard to convince others. When the system works, most people are unaware. “You’ll never know how many things you prevented,” she said.
In 2014, Rocky Mountain PBS News produced a series of in-depth reports on the costly societal results of not treating mental illness. Read more about our UNTREATED investigation.