On a bright sunny Tuesday afternoon of 20 April 1999, two Columbine High School students – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, shot 12 students and 1 teacher – and eventually turned the gun on themselves. Intensive police investigation revealed that both the shooters suffered from chronic depression and experienced immense amount of bullying at school. Their journals secretly sheltered their thoughts – of despair, anger, hatred, and helplessness. In 1999, everyone even remotely associated with the shootings acknowledged that the boys suffered from grave mental illnesses, which resulted in the massacre. But 20 years later, helpless spectators still watch dumbfounded, as young, disturbed people enter schools across the world and shoot random students, take innocent lives. 20 years later, the Columbine High School shooting continues, albeit in different forms. And what about the mental health dialogue? 20 years later, it’s still largely absent from the global platform. Such a sad world.
Can we talk about murder-suicides?
A murder-suicide is a real thing. It is a concept where a suicidal person first kills numerous people around and then turn the gun on his/her own head. But why does a person feel compelled to take lives – of others’ and of his/her own? At what point does a person like this realize that the line has been crossed? That he/she simply cannot survive in this world anymore? Or that he/she must shed blood in order to be heard?
In Eric Harris’ and Dylan Klebold’s case, one can assume that the two boys shot themselves after killing 13 people so that they can escape prison and state punishment. But the truth is, the two murderers were planning and plotting this attack since a year. It was a systematic execution at best. This might mean that Eric and Dylan felt that the world was too much for them. They hated their own lives and probably hated that others led a life they envied. People can make scores of assumptions about why the killers killed. We won’t know the whole truth – ever. But we know parts of it. And these parts are deeply disturbing and saddening.
Was Eric and Dylan’s murder-suicide a cry for help?
Experts who read Eric and Dylan’s journals picked out one thing in common. Eric hated the world and wanted to kill. Dylan thought the world hated him and wanted to die. Experts classified Eric as a psychopath and Dylan as a victim of severe depression. But what the experts did not realize – and what most of us fail to realize even now – is that these boys were not just murderers. They were mentally unhealthy and ill. And for the longest time, their loved ones failed to see it. There was no discussion about their mental health at home. If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “What discussion? Which mental health issues? It is just a phase of life…” understand that you too, are a part of the problem.
Look at the statistics. In only the US, at least one mass shooting takes place every single day. Most of them are school shootings. Do we not remember the Virginia Tech Massacre or Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, or the Parkland shootings? When police investigates the shootings, more often than not, the suspect or the culprit admits to have a mental health condition. Even if the shooter kills himself, his/her social media accounts or journals or medications speak for their degraded mental health. Even Eric and Dylan were on anti-depressants since many months before the D-Day.
Why did Eric and Dylan think that it is better option to kill and die rather than talk about their aggravated feelings of despair and hatred to their loved ones? Why did they make the Basement Tapes, which were only seen by the affected loved ones after it was too late? Did they feel that no one will understand their plight? Or did they know that it is pointless to talk about what went on in their heads? Maybe, they thought no one would understand them at all? After all, dead people receive more flowers than those who are alive, since regret is stronger than not just gratitude, but also compassion.
20 years after the Columbine High School Shooting, why are we still quiet?
What will it take for us to open up about mental health? What will it take for us to understand that mental wellness is just as important as the physical one? How many times will an Eric and a Dylan have to kill and die to remind us that the brain is much more complex than we think? When will we realize that depression and other mental health conditions are silent, sometimes even invisible killers – who can claim the lives of those suffering from them and even of those who are around the sufferers? When will we finally start taking this seriously?
Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, recently opened up about her struggle post the Columbine High School Shooting. In numerous interviews, she mentioned that even as Dylan’s mother, she had no inkling of her son’s mental agony. Truth be told, none of us will ever know at how a person is really feeling from inside just by looking at the face. It takes effort and communication – frank and inviting at the same time – to detect the pain of a person, or to nurse a wound, which is invisible to the human eye.
It is high time that we move our focus from the question – what should be done to the criminal? It is high time that we think about – what urged the person to commit a crime? Most likely, we will end up with the same answer. Mental illness and the society’s inability to lend a patient ear to others’ woes. It is time that we look for mental health conditions among people around us just as we look for physical wounds and trauma. We only inflict the pain on others that we feel inside us. Eric and Dylan did the same.
It is time to stop from another Columbine happening again
In no way was Eric’s and Dylan’s act justified. What they did was terribly wrong. But the fact that we, as a society, paved the way something like this, only because we weren’t attentive enough, is even more wrong and terrible. Moreover, it is not just the Columbine High School shooting that resulted from the lack of immediate attention to mental health. All around the world, millions of people kill and end their lives because they cannot lean on anyone for help. The Columbine High School shooting is just one example. But it is a moving one. However, it is not enough to just move to tears. 20 years later, we must look back at what happened, where we went wrong, and move to action.
Nurturing the hidden fatal wound of mental illness
On that terrible day in 1999, 15 people went to school and never came back. 15 people never got a chance to tell their loved ones just how much they love them. 15 people never lived to see another sun, another dream come to life, and another happy moment to cherish. And if we still keep mum about the dark shadow of mental illness that continues to engulf our society, we will eventually lose count of the casualties. What if one of those might be your loved one? Or even you. Whom will we hold accountable then?
It has been 20 years since that dreadful, tragic day. Conversation about the mental health has started. But we still have a long way to go. The problem is, we don’t know how much time we have left before something like this happens again. So please, let us rush past the awkwardness and reach the crux of it – if you know someone is depressed, be there and lend a patient ear. If you struggle with mental illness, talk about it. We cannot cure what we cannot see. We cannot heal wounds if we refuse to open them up. It is a two way street. It takes two to dance to the song of nurture. We took 20 years to realize that. Let us not waste more time now.