In advance of Supporting our Teens: Special Community Event with Sue Klebold on September 20, 2022, Sue Klebold sits down to talk with hosts Amanda Chavez and Karlene Grabner to talk about spotting depression, how we can support healthy relationships with our kids, and her experiences before and after the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call 9-8-8, our country’s 24 Hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Meet our Guests
Sue Klebold, Author of the New York Times bestseller A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy and advocate for mental health
Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two gunmen responsible for the Columbine High School shootings of April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado. Dylan and his friend killed twelve students and a teacher and wounded more than twenty others before taking their own lives.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Ms. Klebold remained out of the public eye while struggling with devastating grief and humiliation. Her search for understanding would span over fifteen years during which she volunteered for suicide prevention organizations, questioned experts, talked with fellow survivors of loss, and examined the crucial intersection between mental health problems and violence. As a result of her exploration, Sue emerged a passionate advocate dedicated to the advancement of mental health awareness and intervention.
Tracy Ogden, President/CEO of the Boys & Girls Club
Tracy joined the Boys & Girls Club of Oshkosh in November 2009. Tracy earned a degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She has worked at local non-profits for the last 15 years and as CEO is responsible for managing the strategic planning and operation of the Boys & Girls Club of Oshkosh in support of the organizational mission and goals.
Meet our Hosts
Amanda Chavez, Owner & Creative Director, WiscoFam / Go Valley Kids / Go Oshkosh Kids
Born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, Amanda Chavez has a deep love for her community. As a busy mom of 2 little girls, she and her husband are always on the lookout for fun things to do and share with others. Her work combines all of her passions – motherhood, design, and community. Some of her other interests also peak through as well, including baking, photography, and sewing!
Karlene Grabner, Executive Director, Women’s Fund of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation
Karlene Grabner is a graduate of Lourdes Academy and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where she studied finance and economics. She has shared her knowledge and passion for improving the Oshkosh community for the past 20 years through her work at the Oshkosh Community Foundation and Women’s Fund of Oshkosh. Karlene loves playing board games with her family, and when the weather is right, you’ll find them enjoying boating, wakeboarding, and kayaking with their dog, Bago.
Liz Schultz, Producer, WiscoFam / Go Valley Kids / Go Oshkosh Kids
Marlo Ambas, Audio & Video Engineer, Ambas Creative
Amanda Chavez 00:00
Hello, and welcome to Let’s Talk, the show that connects families and Oshkosh local experts to talk about your parenting questions. I’m Amanda Chavez here with my co host, Karlene Grabner and today we’re talking about teens and mental or brain health with Sue Klebold, author of “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy,” and Tracy Ogden, the President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Oshkosh. So how do we spot depression? How is it different from just being sad? What community resources are available for teens and their families? And how has Sue’s work been shaped by her personal experiences? We will talk with Sue and Tracy about all of this and more as we explore supporting the mental and emotional well being of our older kiddos.
Karlene Grabner 00:42
As Amanda said, we have two special guests with us today. Sue, who is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two gunmen responsible for the Columbine High School shooting of April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Ms Klebold remained out of the public eye while struggling with devastating grief and humiliation. Her search to understand what spanned 15 years during which she volunteered for suicide prevention organizations, questioned experts and talked with fellow survivors of loss and examined the crucial intersection between mental health problems and violence. As a result of her exploration, she emerged as a passionate advocate dedicated to the advancement of mental health awareness and intervention, and we’re so pleased to have her and to share her message with the Oshkosh community today. And our other special guest is Tracy Ogden, who a lot of you know from the Boys and Girls Club of Oshkosh. She joined that team in 2009, and has been the CEO for a year or two, and we are happy to have her with us here today.
Amanda Chavez 01:45
So thank you for joining us today Sue and Tracy. We’ll take a quick break, and then we’ll be back to talk about teens and mental health with Sue and Tracy.
Karlene Grabner 01:55
Let’s Talk is brought to you through Go Oshkosh Kids partnership with the Women’s Fund of Oshkosh, the Women’s Fund of Oshkosh works to improve the lives of women, girls, and families of the communities in Winnebago County through philanthropy, grant-making, and education.
Amanda Chavez 02:13
So let’s talk about it. Let’s start with you, Tracy—why was it important to bring Sue here to share this message with the Oshkosh community?
Tracy Ogden 02:22
So several years ago, I saw Sue speak at a Boys and Girls Club conference at our Midwest Conference. And I will say it was one of the most personal and raw experiences I’ve ever had listening to a speaker, I get goosebumps just even still thinking about it to this day, and that was several years ago. Talking about our kids and mental health and talking about having these hard conversations, and being a Boys and Girls Club employee, and being a mother, is just, I left there that day thinking everybody needs to hear her message. Because if we’re not ready to have hard conversations, how are we doing more to support our kids? So I am grateful that Sue is here today, and I’m grateful that we have such an audience to hear her.
Amanda Chavez 03:04
So Sue to start off, what moved you to write “A Mother’s Reckoning” and start speaking publicly?
Sue Klebold 03:09
Well, I don’t think there was any one thing that moved me to start writing because I’m somebody that was a journaler. I’ve always been somebody who benefitted from writing down my thoughts and feelings. And from the moment this first happened, and I was in such a terrible state of confusion, I didn’t understand really what had happened, or how my son happened to be there. And if he really did the things they were saying that he was doing, I began journaling very, very early from the very first days. I also was a teacher, I’ve been in education for 25 years, I work for the community college system in Colorado, and part of my mission in life is to educate others. And when I was going through this, and I had no understanding of what was happening to me, I had a strong sense that I had to learn what was happening to me and understand it. And then it would be my mission and my job to try to help others understand as well so that maybe we could all parent better, and learn from any mistakes that I had made.
Karlene Grabner 04:11
Sue, when you’re talking about journaling, and then you must have reread your journals many times in order to write the book. I think some people process grief and process traumatic situations by kind of moving past them and forgetting them so they don’t have to repeat and go over and over the situation multiple times. I mean, how do you feel about that when it had to be very hard for you to keep opening that wound year after year?
Sue Klebold 04:33
Well, I think there are many different kinds of grief. Losing a child is something that causes extreme grief. Losing a child to suicide, makes that grief more difficult. But when your child murders other people causes them to die and to have lifetime injuries and pain. That’s an extra piece and I had a lot of years that I had to work through all of that because there were so many traumatic pieces attached to it. So it was healthy for me, it was helpful for me to write because writing clarified what my feelings were, and helped me kind of evolve into being more of an activist and having some understanding of what I thought I needed to do. I also felt a strong mission to share my story when someone that I worked with people who knew me, our family was probably, you know, the last family on Earth, you’d expect something like this to happen to have a master’s degree in education, my husband and I had a long term happy marriage, we had two sons, everything was in place to have a healthy, productive family and children. And this was devastating to not only to our family and members of the community but people who knew us as well. And I had a friend at work who told me that she was able to handle the situation with her daughter better because she knew me and knew our situation. She had a 13-year-old daughter, who was suddenly acting different, she was more withdrawn, she wasn’t making eye contact, she was, the mother got a sense that she was hiding something. The mother asked her directly what was wrong, the daughter said there was nothing wrong. And she said, “If I didn’t know you, I would have dropped it.” But she said, “Because of your situation, I pursued it.” And the mother continued to ask, continued to probe, and finally, the girl broke down and admitted that she had left the house the other day when her mother had told her not to, and she had been raped on the street by a stranger. So she was afraid to tell her mother because she didn’t want to get into trouble. And then I began to realize that knowing my story and know the kinds of stories that happen to people might help some of us parent differently and parent better, and to reach more into their children’s lives in a compassionate way to try to help them when they’re in crisis. And we may not even see what those crises are, we may not even be aware that they exist. But in so many cases, they’re there.
Karlene Grabner 07:07
So Tracy, I’m assuming you have like safety nets put into place at the Boys and Girls Club. How if you see children that are in a situation like Sue was just explaining that are going through some type of trauma, and I guess kids don’t always just run out and tell you what is going on with them. What kind of safety nets do you have in place for our kiddos in Oshkosh?
Tracy Ogden 07:26
So I think one of the things that makes our club extraordinary is our staff, the staff take the time to get to know the kids and personalities and get to know the families, because as you said, you know, Sue that she noticed a difference in personality. And that’s exactly what our staff watch for, you know, we do trauma-informed care. We have, you know, social-emotional learning on-site, we have mental health staff, we have a partnership with Catalpa, all pieces that are in place, so that if kids are acting different, or kids are in trauma, or you know, you hear what kids are saying to you and really listening to what they’re saying, staff are doing a great job of picking that up.
Amanda Chavez 08:05
I think it’s important to understand I when I read your book, that you talked about how your kid wasn’t that stereotypical, sad kid, right? Like he was hanging out with his friends. He was social, he was planning for college. It’s like the subtle difference Are those real subtle changes that were maybe missed? And that’s a part that could happen? Anybody? Right, like, and that’s what I think is relatable in your story? Because, I mean, we all, I think as parents, I’ll try to do our best job, right? Like we think we know what our kids are thinking or how they’re feeling or whether it’s a normal behavior or not, isn’t I think that’s the scary part. I guess, as a parent.
Tracy Ogden 08:45
I will say that’s exactly what resonated with me during that speech. That day was the conversation of, you know, and you’ll I’m sure we’ll talk about this today about talking to your kids in a manner of stop trying to fix them. But listen to what they’re saying. To tell me more. Tell me more about why you don’t feel smart today. Tell me why you don’t feel beautiful today. Instead of stopping the conversation by saying, No, I think you’re beautiful. I think you’re smart. I think you’re the best. Stop trying to fix it for your kids and allow them the opportunity to talk. I know the minute I left the room that day, it completely changed the way I spoke to my kids—one hundred percent.
Karlene Grabner 09:24
Well, that’s incredible. Tracy and, you know, I flashed back to a reminder as to why we’re doing this and why Amanda and I met each other in the first place from through the Women’s Fund. We are trying to do a parenting initiative where we’re working with the parent community and trying to give them tidbits of knowledge as to how they can do this incredibly huge job better. And so just hearing that one statement from you, Tracy, I mean, seals the deal right there that we are giving information out to all of our parents and how to do this job better.
Amanda Chavez 09:56
Sue how has your research into brain health and suicide and looking at your family history changed your perspective on what mental wellness looks like?
Sue Klebold 10:04
What I would say is, you know, there are signs that someone’s mental health may be deteriorating. And those signs also overlap with whether someone else is someone who’s feeling suicidal, you can have a lot of the same signs. And they can also be the same signs if, in those rare, rare instances, you’re homicidal, as well as suicidal. And the point I wanted to make was that you can’t always see it, you can’t always know it’s there. So it’s important to do what I think are the two most important things that parents find so hard. One is to shut up and listen. And two is to ask. Ask questions, and be able to ask the tough questions. Such as you know, “Are you feeling like killing yourself? Are you feeling suicidal?”
Karlene Grabner 10:49
So, so I’d like to understand from a community aspect because Oshkosh is a community that rallies behind each other, and we have a lot of great individuals. Do you feel that the community got behind you in and supported you? Or do you feel like that was up and down kind of through the process.
Sue Klebold 11:08
After there is a tragedy, such as a mass shooting at a school, there is chaos in a community. And it was 23 years ago when we didn’t have the knowledge then that we do now. Unfortunately, at that time, the community viewed my son and his friend, the two shooters, as evil monsters, and there was no attempt at that time to try to understand what might bring someone to that point of doing what they did. I know that our governor went on national television to say that it was the parents’ fault, and it generated a lot of hostility, and that hostility in many cases exists today. I do not speak at all, or very rarely in Colorado. And it’s because people are traumatized by me, because it was my son who did this. And we look alike, and we, you know, we’re both tall and thin, and, you know, weird looking gawky. And I just don’t want to re-traumatize people with my presence. And I know that there are still a lot of people who are very, very angry, very upset. And, you know, they blame us for making this tragedy happen. In over the years, you know, one of the ways that I have coped with this is by understanding that I probably would feel the same way if it had been the other way around, and my child had been shot. But I think it also makes people feel safer if they can look at a shooter and a shooter’s family, and believe they are very different from us, this could not possibly happen in my family, which is the way I thought before it happened to me. So I understand that some of that judgment that comes really comes from fear where people don’t want to believe that you could have a ”normal family” and a family member would do something like this. So I would say that, unfortunately, there’s still a lot of strife, anger, blame, and I have not really taken part in the larger community at all.
Amanda Chavez 13:16
I think one thing from your book that I really appreciated is because I think as a society, we want to find someone to blame, right? That’s how we cope with it. And I appreciate I mean, I’m sure you’ve gone through your process of grief and processing what happened. But it would be so easy for you to just blame that other shooter’s family, and you didn’t in the book, and I appreciated that you shared that you took that responsibility for your son like that. They both took part in that. So I appreciated that part in your story. What do you blame—do you blame someone or something?
Sue Klebold 13:53
No, I don’t. I’m not the kind of person who blames; I am not easily angered. I don’t you know, I am the kind of person who tries to take personal responsibility for everything, maybe perhaps too much sometimes. But we have to understand that that Dylan and Eric died in that incident by suicide. And what I had sort of evolved into understanding was that they died by suicide, but it was a very small type of suicide that happens very rarely. And maybe one to 2% of all suicides are murder-suicides where the lives of other people are taken, as well as the perpetrator, the person who dies by suicide. It’s a very small number. And when these kinds of things happen, we look for simple answers, but there are no simple answers. There’s a constellation of factors that contributes, there was a process of deterioration that occurs and if someone doesn’t get help sufficiently before the end point, something bad will happen. And, you know, we can say this was caused by bullying. This was caused by poor parenting. This was caused by, you know, whatever you want to think of. But that’s never true. Never does one thing causes suicide, you might say, you know, someone died by suicide because his girlfriend broke up with him. And that’s just a fallacy. It is a risk factor. It’s something that contributes, that’s piling on to, to a lot of the issues that that person is dealing with. So blame isn’t a useful thing—it is not useful. And it oversimplifies something that should not be simplified in order for us to address this, fix it, to prevent it, it’s not going to be one thing that does it. It’s going to be many things in many places in someone’s life that tries to interrupt that process.
Karlene Grabner 15:48
Tracy, I’m sure you see this in your four walls. And, Sue I’d like your opinion on this too. But I think as parents, we try so hard to make sure the influences surrounding our children are positive ones, meaning probably their peers, their friends. And I don’t know that there’s a way to control that better, or I guess listening is a good thing. But I guess Tracy, how do you handle like the peer pressure of friend groups and things like that inside the Boys and Girls Club? And Sue, do you have any advice on that?
Tracy Ogden 16:17
I will tell you that during Sue’s speech, I text my husband halfway through and said, “It’s time for me to quit my job, and homeschool, and my children will just sit with me all day long, I will be their only source of friendship going forward.” And just because exactly that, you can’t influence it. You know what’s happening outside. And I think for us, for me as a mother for the Boys and Girls Club. It’s making children stronger within it’s giving them the tools of resiliency, it’s giving them the tools of being strong, it’s giving them the tools to be able to say yes to something or to say no to something. Because again, if you’re going back to there is no, there’s no point in blaming, right? So if my one of my children gets influenced to do something wrong, it’s on them. It’s not on the other person. So how do you build a strong child from within, so that they’re able to say no, then, you know, I know, at least for my kids, I will not be their only friend, they will be out of my nest, you know, they’re in school, they’re in activities. And I think for all of us at the club is spending a lot of time building that piece, building that piece with strengthening kids, you know, just their mental capacity and building their self-esteem. And that’s why we do programming like the tea because it builds the girls up, you know, it’s why we do different programming with the boys to build up their self-esteem so that they can, you know, from within make their own choices. And I
Sue Klebold 17:44
think that’s absolutely true. And I support that completely. And there’s one important things that that parents can do is to listen to their kids, and give them an opportunity to express what they’re feeling. Having bad feelings is not the same thing as having a mental illness, it’s having a bad feeling. And we have to achieve this balance between letting them sit with their discomfort with whatever it is if it’s anxiety, if it’s self-blame, if it’s whatever it happens to be, and letting them process through what they can do to make themselves safe and make themselves feel better. And in this other side of you know, helicoptering of doing too much and just jumping to, okay, we’re gonna get you to counseling, I think you need to go to bed at eight o’clock, let’s do this, let’s go get you a manicure. Because I think it’ll make you feel better. And you know, as parents, we don’t like to see our kids suffer, it hurts us so much. And it frightens us. So we jump very quickly to trying to fix their problems for them rather than with them and allowing them to do it. So I can’t stress too much the importance of just listening and sitting with what you hear, taking a deep breath, and say, you know, tell me more, tell me more about that feeling. Taking something that they’ve said to you, and isolating it saying, you know, when people aren’t sleeping well, or when people you know, haven’t taken a bath in four days, whatever it is, sometimes they’re feeling really down and they even feel like dying. Have you wished lately that you could be dead? Have you thought about these things? So I think it’s very important to get those conversations started, and to listen, and learn to sit with it and hear what someone says. And just that ability to express those feelings is so helpful to them that that in itself can help a great deal.
Tracy Ogden 19:43
That was just gonna say that I’ve heard is that it’s okay for kids to have bad days. Yes, sometimes kids have bad days. We all have bad days. You know, you’re tired. You’re stressed out. It’s been a long day at work. We come home, and we’re like, oh, I just you know, I had a bad day. Our kids have a bad day, and we panic. It’s, you know, it’s, you know, they have long days at school, they’re stressed out about a test, they’re worried about a boyfriend, whatever it may be. Kids have bad days, it’s discerning between bad day to bad days and days and days.
Sue Klebold 20:15
And the trick there is to try to ask to understand how bad do you feel? Do you feel like that more than two or three days in a row? You know, how are you sleeping? Or what makes this worse? What makes us better? Just keep asking questions to help them learn about what they’re feeling and understand it better. And if someone is in a crisis, and they say they’re feeling suicidal, don’t jump, just take a deep breath and say, “Well, you know, do you feel that you would be comfortable calling a crisis line with me?” Maybe the kid has a therapist, “Do you feel that maybe calling your therapist would you call the therapist with me.” You know, “I’ll drive you somewhere, you know, we love you, we support you.” You know, just reassurance rather than a sense of panic from the parents or the parents who are afraid of the kids feelings. And I think we tend to do that as parents and don’t mean to convey that—but sometimes we do.
Amanda Chavez 21:08
I think about like, how important it is to carve time and to connect with your kids during the day. Because I think we’re entering in that season in our life, my kids are in middle school, and it’s go go go and how important it is to have those activities, but also to have time to connect with your family even. And without electronics. Right?
Sue Klebold 21:28
And I’ve heard kids express it, would you just put down the phone and listen, I mean, you know, it make eye contact, you know, role model for them what they need to do for themselves and for each other, of making that connection. And then being that adult that they could go to that they know that if they have a problem, they will have a say and how it’s handled, and it’ll be a partnership, trying to get them some help. A lot of us for many years of our lives have believed that if we mentioned the S word, we bring up the word suicide, that we are the ones planting that seed that we’re the ones that make that person think, Oh, I never thought of suicide. There have been studies on that and anecdotal evidence on that. And the research is overwhelmingly saying that that is not true. That is a myth. That if we ask someone who is suicidal, if they are feeling suicidal, it’s a relief to them, they want to have that question asked to help them deal with it. There are school districts that don’t want to put in suicide programs in place for that reason, because they’re afraid of the responsibility. But there is no data that says that that is a dangerous thing to do. It is a life-saving thing to do. And some people just are too uncomfortable asking the question. So if you can’t, then get someone else to help you, you know, call the crisis line, we have a national crisis number now that’s new and easy. It’s 988. You can call on behalf of someone you love, you can call with them. So they can guide you to resources to people who are more comfortable asking that question. But I believe that in this world, understanding how to talk to somebody who may be in a mental health crisis is a responsibility that we all have, just as we all might take CPR. To help someone who’s having trouble breathing, we should all have at least something like a Mental Health First Aid class and those classes are available, or a suicide prevention class that lets you learn a little bit how to ask the question, and what to do and try it and how to connect them with support.
Tracy Ogden 23:30
A couple years ago, I had a woman come to the club, who was a retired police officer. She was teaching a class for one of our girls’ classes and handed me a book that she had written and said, you know, this is for teens who have considered suicide. So she said, I just want to give you a first look. And if it’s something you’d like, I’d be happy to come in and teach the class. She went back to the front of the room. I read the book. And after her speech was done, she came back and said, “You’ve obviously never considered suicide.” And I said, “No, quite honestly, I said, it’s never once crossed my mind.” And she said, “You can tell.” She said, “By the look on your face trying to read this book.” She said, “You don’t understand it.” And I said, “No. I said I don’t.” And she said, “Those who have considered suicide will understand this book.” But she said, “I will tell you, you need to educate yourself better.” She said, “If you’re going to work with these kids, you need to educate yourself better because you can’t even fathom within this book, can you?” and I said I must have had quite the face. I said because no I can’t. And she said, “Educate yourself. Because that’s how you’ll help those kids.”
Karlene Grabner 24:40
Well and it’s true, it’s like that walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes kind of statement. I mean, it is hard if you are not in that place of time or situation to fully understand what others are going through. But I like what Sue keeps saying about we have to listen and I think what you said about that and the partnership and not fixing the problems working with them is really as parents what we should be paying more attention to.
Sue Klebold 25:04
Well, and I’d also like to add that we use language around suicide, for example, we see someone committed suicide, and that is a term that is not being used anymore, as much as many of us want to eradicate that term. Because it has a very negative connotation, like you commit murder, you commit adultery. And we need to think of suicide as when someone is in a suicidal state, they do not have full access to their tools of self-governance and reason and cognition. And when we use terms such as “he chose to die by suicide,” “she made the decision to kill herself.” People who are in that state do not make the decision in the same sense that the rest of us do, they are not fully present, their thinking is impaired, and they are responding to what they’re experiencing. And that is more than likely they’re in pain, they want their suffering to stop, they don’t see any hope for anything changing, getting better. So we’ve got to understand that when someone is in this state, they’re not just trying to take an easy way out. This isn’t something that’s, you know, a goldbricking or trying to get attention. We hear that often. But really take it for face value that someone is suffering. And if that is something on their minds, if they are thinking of ending their lives, and that is on their mind, that in itself is a symptom that they need some help.
Amanda Chavez 26:31
We’re all parents here and have walked those journeys, but our kiddos they think they know everything, right? But kids’ brains aren’t fully developed until they’re 26—they can’t comprehend even full-term effects of their decisions, right?
Sue Klebold 26:46
And they also have more problems with impulse control. So suicide and adults, we don’t think of suicides so much as being impulse control problems, but with youth, that comes into play more.
Karlene Grabner 26:58
Sue, Tracy, do you have any final thoughts today?
Sue Klebold 27:00
I think if you are someone you love is in crisis. You know, we have the 988, call 988. It’s the new National Prevention Lifeline number.
Amanda Chavez 27:09
I encourage parents to check out the book, listen to it, you can get it from the library, on your phone. I think there’s so many great messages in your book about what we talked about here today and what we didn’t even talk about and empathy. And I think, like you said, just continuing to learn about things and continuing to be open and receptive too.
Karlene Grabner 27:31
Well, I want to send a special thank you to Sue for coming to Oshkosh and speaking with a couple of audiences in Oshkosh, and also doing this podcast for us, and Tracy for joining us and doing the great work you do in the community with our kids.
Amanda Chavez 27:44
The book is available through Libby through your library. One note that from a Sue’s memoir “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy,” Sue is donating all author profits to organizations that promote mental wellness, brain research, and suicide prevention. Visit gooshkoshkids.com to continue this conversation and find our list of community resources. Thank you again to our guests, Sue and Tracy, for sharing your time with us today. And thanks to our producer Liz Schultz, our audio and video engineer Marlo Ambas and of course, my co-host, Karlene Grabner, and the support from the Women’s Fund of Oshkosh. Let’s talk again soon.