This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. Unfortunately, we have not changed many gun laws and the mass shootings continue. On the 17th anniversary ABC interviewed the mother of one of the shooters about the warning signs she missed. If it was only that easy, but it is not. A great deal was missed by many and there is plenty of blame to go around. The parents did not create the Columbine shootings, but they must live the rest of their lives with what their sons did that day.
First in our society, there is a huge negative stigma regarding mental illness and psychotherapy. I see many teens who would benefit from psychotherapy, but the teenager resists because only “crazy” people go to therapy and they are not crazy. The parents often don’t force the teen to go to therapy because, “he is too big for me to force him to come”, or “if he is going to go I want him to want to go. I think forcing him may cause more damage.” So parents are allowing teens to make the decision about psychotherapy because people believe it is not that important unless you are crazy. If their son’s pedestrian said their son needed surgery, the parents would not allow their son to decide about having or not having surgery.
Another issue facing parents is that belief that only crazy people go to therapy. They don’t want their child or family to be seen as the “crazy one or the weird one.” In these situations, I often hear well we will think about it and try changing things at home and if we feel we really need help we will call. Typically, I receive the call when their son is in juvenile hall for a number of crimes. They are calling too late.
The other problem is the school systems. I work with parents who are reporting symptoms of depression and their son feeling overwhelmed by school or being bullied at school. They ask the school for help, but the school acts like the parents are over protective. When I become involved and let the school know the student needs help and will need an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan), the school down plays the behavior or blames the parents. They don’t want to do an IEP because it will cost the school money. I have seen schools tell parents all kind of lies to avoid giving a student an IEP and what the school is forgetting is the help the student desperately needs.
Finally, our health care system is to blame also. One Thanksgiving Day, I was paged by a parent I never met. She had been given my number by the County Hospital. She brought her son there because he was suicidal. The hospital told her they had no more beds for suicidal teens and could not help. She had my service page me begging for help. Her son definitely need to be hospitalized. There was nothing I could do on an out-patient basis. I gave her several numbers to hospitals in the areas and told her if all else fails go to an ER room because they cannot refuse to treat.
I have seen this with other teenagers that I have treated. Parents are begging and pleading for help. Their insurance company won’t pay for in-patient treatment or only pay for two weeks when it is a 60 day program. The cost for the treatment programs is often $10,000 a month. A price most families cannot afford. At times when they do receive the insurance authorization, they cannot find an in-patient program with an opening because there are not many of these programs. These parents are doing everything they should but because of society’s view point that mental illness is not real, they find it very difficult to get their children the help they need.
A good example is the shooting at UC Santa Barbara. The parents knew their son had emotional issues and had been trying to get him help. When he went to school in Santa Barbara and his mother found a file on his computer, they knew people were in danger. They called everyone they could think of but were dismissed as over reacting.
An act such as Columbine doesn’t happen because one parent ignored symptoms. An act such as that occurs because parents, friends, family, teachers, school and our mental health system missed warning signs and failed to make the teenager get help. Mental health does deal with life and death situations not just someone crying. Mental health issues are just as serious as what occurs any Friday night in ER rooms in hospitals all over the country.
ABC asked the mother to look at herself, I am asking you to look at yourself and our approach to mental health. Columbine happened 20 years ago and every year since we have had more school shootings and more deaths. When ABC News interviewed the mother of the shooter in 2016, according to the CDC, we already had more students deaths by school shootings in 2016, than in the preceding 17 years. In one year more deaths than when you add up the preceding 17 years. This is a very scary, and sad statistic. We need to look at ourselves and ask, what are we going to do to help prevent these senseless killings, not the mother of the Columbine shooter. We as a society must change. The life you save may be your own or your own child’s life. New Zealand showed us that change can occur. Within three weeks of the shooting, all assault weapons had been banned in New Zealand. It’s 20 years later and the United States has done very little to implement safer gun laws. However, we do terrorize school children by undergoing routine mass shooter drills. What are our priorities?
Dr. Michael Rubino specializes in treating high risk teenagers, and teenagers and children who have survived traumatic events and their families. For more information on his work or private practice visit his websites at http://www.RubinoCounseling.com, http://www.rcs-ca.com or his Facebook page http://www.Facebook.com/drrubino3.