American Tragedy Documentary

Do you remember when the Columbine high school shooting happened? It was 1999, so I’m sure some of you reading were too young to be aware yet. There were so many essays and op-eds in the months following the shooting, suggesting that the parents of the shooters must have known something like this was going to happen; that the parents could have prevented it; that they must be absentee parents, or cruel, abusive parents to have raised a child who could kill in cold blood. And of course, we hear the same thing suggested every time there has been a school shooting since.

But in the 21 years since Columbine, a huge amount of research has been done, and the experts agree our assumptions about parents are wrong. It turns out parents don’t know and can’t predict if their child is going to become a school shooter, and that even loving parents can raise a killer.

So the bad news is, the statistics tell us 1 in 5 kids will have a severe and debilitating mental health disorder before the age of 18. Which means even if it’s not your child, it’s 4 or 5 kids in their class. But the good news is, Anthony Biglan reports in The Nurture Effect that with the right tools and early interventions, “preventing crime, academic failure, alcohol abuse, tobacco use, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, marital discord, poverty, child abuse, depression, anxiety . . . is possible.”

My sister-in-law, Lisa Sabey, dove into mental health research when one of her six kids was dealing with an eating disorder, and the research became her passion. She has made it her life’s work to change the way our country thinks about and approaches mental health care for kids. Her second full-length documentary on mental health, titled American Tragedy, comes out tomorrow (July 7th), and it follows the story of Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two Columbine shooters. The message of the film is: it’s an American Tragedy that we have not understood the importance of mental wellness, nor taught it.

The documentary is sensitive and moving and it sheds a light on how our approach to mental health in the U.S. is in desperate need of improvement. The documentary features experts who emphasize that Mental Wellness is based on skills that can be taught. And the directive is clear: We must start teaching those skills in homes and schools.

Here’s a trailer for the documentary. I hope you’ll watch the film because I’d love to discuss it with you. Tomorrow (July 7th) it will be available for streaming purchase on iTunes, Prime Video, Youtube, Vimeo, and a ton of cable services too — you can see the whole list here. (Heads up: If you pre-order it today on iTunes, it’s $6.99, but once it’s released tomorrow, it will go up.)

The film was directed by my nephew, Josh Sabey and it was recognized as an Official Selection of Boston Film Festival, Heartland International Film Festival, Pittsburgh Independent Film Festival, and Atlanta Docufest. I was able to watch an early release version and it’s incredibly well done.

For launch week, they are hosting a series of Facebook Live discussions with Mental Wellness Experts. You can find information about each expert and the dates and times on the American Tragedy website. It’s an impressive lineup. If you have concerns about your own kids and worry about being able to recognize when they might need intervention, I hope you’ll try to join the discussions.

This movie project started years ago and no one could have predicted that there would be a national conversation happening about policing, including policing in schools, when the movie came out — and to be clear, the documentary does not go into policing at all. But the connections are so obvious to me. I think of this tweet: After Columbine over 10,000 school police officers were hired just in case a school shooting happened. Two decades later, they haven’t stopped a *single* school shooting. Instead they’ve arrested over 1 million kids, mostly students of color, for routine behavior violations.

Our approach to preventing school shootings has been exactly wrong and has done unmeasurable harm to our school communities and our children — especially black children. Policing in schools has amplified and accelerated the school to prison pipeline.

Instead of funding police in schools, funding should have gone to programs like early childhood mental wellness education and staffing + training for school therapists and counselors. These types of interventions have shown impressive positive results (while policing in schools has been nothing but negative). In the documentary, Sarah Davidon, the Research Director at Mental Health Colorado says:

“Mental illness, things like Schizophrenia, bi-polar, anxiety, are not directly corollated to violence. Whether or not someone has mental wellness, is.

We know that social and emotional learning, when it’s taught in Kindergarten, has an impact on future employment, has an impact on involvement in the juvenile justice system, involvement in the criminal justice system, in future relationships, in rates of divorce. There are so many things that studies have now shown, can go back to mental wellness in Kindergarten.”

She also mentions the Heckman Equation — for every $1 we invest high-quality birth-to-five programs for children, we save $13 in both public funds and the healthcare system later on.

What are your thoughts? Do you have assumptions about this? I think we as parents want to believe we would know if our kids were plotting some horrific act. And what’s your reaction to the stat I mentioned (it’s a quote from an expert in the documentary), that “1 in 5 kids will have a severe and debilitating mental health disorder before the age of 18”? I found that number shocking. Do you feel like you have the tools you need to help your kids stay mentally well?

26 thoughts on “American Tragedy Documentary”

  1. I agree that we absolutely have to make sure our kids have access to emotional and mental health programs and I do wish schools would prioritize that. One thing that you don’t touch on here, and I do know is important to you, is access to guns. I haven’t seen the documentary (it sounds excellent) and I assume they discuss this? If kids did not have guns in their homes, or the ability to obtain them, we would not see school shootings.

    1. I’m sure you know by now how delighted I would be with a full gun ban (having written about guns extensively here), and I agree that without guns in homes we wouldn’t see school shootings. The movie doesn’t cover guns or gun violence — and that’s because it’s not actually focused on school shootings (though they do use Columbine as a background). Instead it’s focused on improving mental wellness, which of course has potential to make societal improvements beyond school shootings and gun violence.

      I appreciated that one of the experts featured in the documentary was clear that mental illness and violence do not correlate. I think it’s harmful (and a total copout) when people try to argue that gun violence is actually mental illness. The quote from the expert is:

      “Mental illness, things like schizophrenia, bi-polar, anxiety, are not directly corollated to violence. Whether or not someone has mental wellness, is.” — Sarah Davidon, Research Director at Mental Health Colorado

    2. I think placing the responsibility of emotional and mental health of our children our schools is not reasonable or fair. Schools cannot do EVERYTHING for children. They are providing all sorts of social services for children and families as it is and their primary job is supposed to be to educate them. I think more parents need to be aware that they need to prioritize their child’s mental health. And that might mean paying for therapy, taking children to appointments, doing research and homework on the topic of mental health, etc. For those who cannot afford services, I would be in favor of states spending more money on mental healthcare for everyone. However, I don’t think the primary responsibility should lie with schools and teachers.

  2. This looks like a much needed, powerful film about an issue that has been swept under the rug. Also, seeing it in a new way will hopefully make a difference. Thanks for sharing this, Gabrielle. Can I buy it on demand from my cable network? I don’t have prime—I do have itunes though. I’ll figure it out.

  3. Oh my goodness, just reading this has made me cry. As an adult with depression and anxiety issues that were not treated when I was a child, this hits me hard. My experience as a kid has made me hyper vigilant about my kids’mental health; they’re both currently doing horse therapy to help with anxiety and behavior issues. Thank you so much for sharing this resource.

  4. Eleanor Frances

    A society is judged by the way it treats its’ children. Our country is doing a terrible job. We look for blame and the reality is that we need to place a higher value on parenting, emotional education, and meeting needs of all children. Babies, toddlers, children, teens- are all individuals, and each have their own unique and very important needs. Parenting is the hardest and most important job there is, and we each approach it with our own strengths and weaknesses. If we don’t start caring for the parents, obviously the children and then our society will suffer.

  5. At the beginning of the school year, my 6 year old went throught a few days of depression (sadness, bad sleep, poor eating) and as parents, we didn’t know what to do, it was terrifying. I talked about it to an older friend who used to be a teacher and she told me to talk immediately to my son’s tecaher, the pyschologist at school. We did and in 24 hours, the matter was “settled”. If we didn’t have the tools, the schools did and after that, we made sure we improved our knowledge on these issues. Ask for help is key. As parents, we don’t know every thing and we must accept that. Thank you for this post.

  6. We have to start teaching mental health in health class in schools. I am seriously flabbergasted that this hasn’t been done yet. The statistics that you cite are absolute proof that we need to prioritize mental health with our children.

    1. I am so intrested in watching this. I worked in an early childhood classroom 4 turning 5. Our focus was social emotional growth, boundaries, self care, serving others, etc… the unique glorious part of our program was it was in a high school and the high schoolers took a class that allowed them to work with the children. We were teaching both. Teaching them how to work with children and in turn them teaching the littles through their learning. We were there to guide each one of them. Teaching high schoolers about the importance of early childhood. Teaching them positive ways to communicate. The high schoolers felt loved and so did our kiddos. I think if this was the kind of lessons taught in early childhood and throughout adolescence into teens we could have SERIOUS change within one generation. Unfortunately so many of the parents didn’t understand or see the value. So many want a “worksheet” to show they “learned” something. Add technology in the mix and you have a child who is behind in emotional intelligence and behind in gross/ fine motor skills. They are all a piece of the puzzle. There is importance in each one. I believe each one will play a role in their mental well being. So many things could be implemented for enormous growth but it’s all about saving a dollar????…im not sure why they can’t see the statistics that early learning and emotional development are far cheaper than the alternative.

    2. Our school does offer “Guidance” time with the counselor for each grade. I believe once per week. However, that is not enough to fully address an individual child’s mental health. While I do think schools should be equipped to help parents and teachers navigate issues of mental health, I think expecting schools to handle this for us is not reasonable or fair. Parents need to acknowledge the importance of mental health and take responsibility for helping their child(ren) through counseling, therapy, etc. It’s not different than parents being responsible for their child’s physical health. Yes, we have school nurses (spread too thin) but we do not rely on them for primary healthcare.

  7. I read Sue Klebold’s book and it’s just chilling to realize how normal her son was, considering what he did. Either she’s delusional/lying, or he looked and acted so similarly to a typical teenager that most parents in her shoes would have been just as shocked as she was to find out their child had committed an atrocity. It makes me think that no amount of screening or availability of mental health services would have made a difference in his case. I also think that about the Las Vegas shooter, who was not on anyone’s radar prior to his massacre.

    1. I read that book too and definitely didn’t feel like she was delusional or lying. I thought she was very candid. She said (not quoting here) that her son was primarily depressed with suicidal fantasies and basically was easy prey to go along with his friend’s plan. The friend was a sociopath with homicidal fantasies. The combination of the two was tragic. I actually thought it gave some good information on things that one could pay attention to in terms of kids behavior, friends, etc.

    2. Hi L. Sounds like she knew he was depressed and suicidal so I have to disagree with your statement that mental health services wouldn’t have made a difference in his case. I think it’s a little dangerous to make the statements you made in your comment because it could allow our communities to throw their hands in the air with a “well! nothing we do can make a difference anyway.”

  8. My eyes have been opened to this gap (opportunity?) in our education system since having a child who has lagging social and emotional skills. We’re in Canada, but I think are facing a similar mental health crisis with our children. I have spent the past several years fighting for my son and it feels like an uphill battle – the odd teacher/administrator understands the importance of building social and emotional skills but our public school curriculum, training and processes just don’t support teaching these skills – we’re still largely focused on academics. We actually just made the choice to switch to a private school so that our son can get a more balanced and holistic education.

  9. A couple of years ago I read David Cullen’s book on Columbine, and it was really eye-opening. The Klebolds participated with that book as well, and at the end I really had sympathy with them. Would highly recommend

    1. I know they would love to make it free at some point, but it was a three year project and they still need to pay for it. Documentaries are expensive to make.

  10. such an important subject, and one which many parents just hope it’s not them, and then don’t discuss.

  11. I feel very fortunate that our public elementary school has embraces social emotional learning as a cornerstone of their early elementary curriculum (and a running theme in the upper elementary grades and the foundation of the revamped “citizenship” assemblies for the whole school). Our school has used The Seven Habits of Happy Kids program (which has been largely funded by our PTA for several years), and now the school district is providing & funding a different curriculum for all the elementary schools – Second Step. I can’t comment Second Step, as it’s pretty new to us and has still been overlapping with the Seven Habits program, but Seven Habits has been really effective and easy to implement into our home routines and language about tasks. I cannot count the number of times I have asked my kids to “begin with the end in mind” or to find a “win-win” solution, both directly from Seven Habits. There are a series of children’s books that parents can use to introduce/reinforce the concepts at home.

  12. Even though I myself have suffered with anxiety and had debilitating PPD, I still was completely surprised when my 13 year old daughter tried to kill herself. Thankfully thankfully thankfully I had good behavioral health insurance that promised to fund her care as long as she needed it (I cried and later hugged a rep from the company after hearing that). She learned skills for navigating her own mental health that took me years to master. But the stigma still remains for these kids and their parents. It needs to be treated as the health crisis it is, not a punishment or indictment. Thank you for continuing to be an ally and an advocate.

  13. I just watched the film and appreciated many parts of it, especially the mother’s perspective. I agree with the need for better mental health initiatives, but am really disappointed in the complete omission of faith/religion given how closely intertwined that is, or can be, with mental health. And because Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott were both shot and killed for believing in Jesus. It seemed like a very relevant topic to address. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Gaby thanks for highlighting this topic. If you have any resources to share for mental wellness in children I’d be really appreciative. I would like to try to introduce a programme at my children’s pre-school but I’m not sure where to start.

  15. jessica marie watson

    When this film project started we didn’t know it would get national attention…yes you and they did all know it would thats why it was done because anytime you mention columbine it is national news even when it’s not at columbine. It was a well put together with no responsibility taken by any. No one touched on the internets effect as it was brand new to us nor the lack of mental health at our school at that time nor the lack of any real changes since.or the biggest elephant not talked about was the weapons. since. Have been dozens and dozens of gun reform bills so your wayyy of by saying gun bans but there have been 2 mental health reforms…just two. The movie itself doesn’t even touch on that FACT.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top