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?