Making Sense of Columbine: A Conversation with Sue Klebold

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On April 20th, 1999, two high school seniors at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 12 students and one teacher, as well as injuring many others. The pair then killed themselves.

The lives of the families and loved ones of those killed that day were changed, devastatingly, forever.

The life of Sue Klebold, mother of shooter Dylan Klebold, was also changed.

Shocked by her failure to anticipate her son’s emerging problems and tragic actions, she has actively devoted herself, in the 17 years since, to informing herself and others about mental health, often working alongside the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

On the occasion of her book release A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, Sue sat down for a conversation with AFSP’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Christine Moutier.

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DR. CHRISTINE MOUTIER: Has it been just an absolute whirlwind, with your interview schedule?

SUE KLEBOLD: It’s starting to slow down now, finally. I’m finding I do have moments now where I can concentrate on my ‘other’ life, and I think that those moments will grow as time goes by.

CM: When we connected in person in Little Rock at AFSP’s annual Chapter Leadership Conference, you had just done the Diane Sawyer interview. Now, of course, we’ve seen what they did with that, and how they put it out there. How are you feeling about it?

SK: The Diane Sawyer interview was my first public interview, so it was difficult for me.  But I think it turned out to be a very effective way to begin a dialogue about the tragedy in the context of mental health and suicidality. So, you know, I feel that people are asking me a broader array of questions now, which is nice. So, yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about it.

CM: That’s great. Part of how I saw the Diane Sawyer interview, and others you’ve done, is that people out there in the world had to go back to the last point in time that you were sort of a public figure, and bridge their understanding of what happened then, and what has been happening in your thinking, and with your advocacy work and suicide prevention. So most of it was just relating to real events, and then carrying the conversation more towards mental health and suicide prevention. Some of the things that I noticed were particularly moving, in your discussions about the book, revolve around the themes of forgiveness, and, to some degree, acceptance, in terms of those other families or individuals out there.

SK: Yes. That has been an incredibly uplifting and heartwarming result of all this. I have gotten to meet a few of the victims, or their family members, as a result of the book being released. That has been amazing to me. I think when this tragedy happened, the community was in such shock, and we never really had an opportunity to meet each other: to talk, to try to work through any of this. So people have had nearly 17 years of whatever beliefs they were holding onto, whatever feelings. So the fact that now a few people are feeling safe enough to come forward and speak, it’s a huge gift to me. I mean, it’s just incredible.

CM: That’s really amazing. Is that something you had anticipated?

SK: No, I didn’t. I hoped it would happen, but I can’t say I was anticipating it.

CM: I know, as we’ve talked, you’ve tried to anticipate many different outcomes, in terms of the messaging and our concerns about contagion. But you’ve been so thoughtful and careful in seeking advice from experts on the subject of mental health, and you’re such a wise person yourself. So I want to commend you for all of that. But, also, I’m feeling so encouraged by some of that new dialogue.

SK: Well, one of the things I don’t have control over is that sometimes, following interviews, when people actually write or make a print copy of the interview, they fill it with photographs of my son wearing his weapons, and even after everything that we’ve talked about in an interview, or that’s in the book, there are editors out there who want to show these violent images with the articles, and, you know, I find that kind of appalling. But it does still happen, and we are continuing to try to educate media and people about that, about the risk of contagion.

CM: What would you say are a couple of things from your personal experience, being the center of attention in this way, that have been the most surprising? For instance, has it been surprising to you that people have had an understanding about mental health, perhaps, that’s been positive?

SK: You know, actually, I’m not surprised. I believe, very much, that we — “we” meaning our culture, our society at this time – were ready to hear this message. I felt so strongly that it was the right time to do this.

CM: I’m thinking of how passionate you are about getting the big picture message out about identifying young people who are struggling, and who have a burgeoning mental health problem. How has that part of this been, being in the public spotlight? Has there been enough attention on those issues that you cared most passionately about getting out there?

SK: It’s a little early for me to tell. There is another component of this whole issue of getting care: that there are so many people who know that they have a family member who is troubled, who is having problems — maybe addiction problems, problems with depression — and the individual absolutely refuses to acknowledge that or to get treatment.

CM: Well, I couldn’t agree with you more, Sue, and, just so you know, those are top of mind for us at AFSP in terms of how to balance the individual’s right versus the issue of getting people the help they need at those critical times. And then the other piece to it is training clinicians, even within primary care, and, of course, within mental health, on what to do when they encounter people who are distressed and at risk. But I just have to tell you that I have so much hope that we can really move some of those things forward in powerful ways. If you think about the way things have changed in the last few years, in terms of attitudes towards mental health, it is incredible.

SK: Well, I’m hoping that these changes are occurring. Every time I hear that a school shooting was thwarted because some program found out about the situation, and the warning signs are heeded, I’m just thrilled when these things work. Because I think they have the potential to work, and work well, but more people need to be on board with what needs to be done.

CM: What do you see coming up for you, in terms of next steps? Is there a big vision that you’ve had?

SK: I have no clearly defined vision, but I’ve been thinking hard about it lately. For almost the last seventeen years, I woke up every day thinking about this book, writing this book in my head, and I’m not doing that anymore. I still want to stay connected to the cause of suicide prevention and to advocate for mental health awareness, but I’m trying to figure out how my priorities might shift now that the book is published.

CM: Sue, is there anything else that came to your mind while we were talking, that you’d like to touch on?

SK: No. I can’t think of a thing. These are nice, refreshing, different questions.

In May, AFSP will honor Sue at our Annual Lifesavers Gala.