The XX Factor

Columbine’s Lost Lesson

A guest post from Dave Cullen, author of Columbine , which has a new Instructor Guide and Student Guide .

This week, the U.S. caught up with a story which has been big news in Australia for a week. From the New York Times site : “Twin sisters from Australia, who complained of bullying as teenagers, might have chosen to shoot themselves at a gun range outside Denver last week because of its proximity to Columbine High School, site of the 1999 massacre that became a global news event.”

Last Monday, Kristin Hermeler committed suicide while her twin, Candice, shot herself but survived, at the Family Shooting Center at Cherry Creek State Park, less than 20 miles from Columbine.

Local officials in Colorado announced last week that the women had traveled to Denver for the suicide, spent about four weeks there, took shooting lessons at a local gun range, and carried Time magazine’s 1999 Columbine cover story with them. Officials said there were no drawings, writings or armaments indicating a larger plan to harm anyone but themselves.The Denver Post put up letters on its Web site from the Hermeler twins to Brooks Brown, a Columbine survivor who had been friends with the two Columbine killers and was repeatedly smeared by the local sheriff as a suspect in the case.

What’s missing from much of the coverage is the meaningful Columbine connection to this suicide: depression. This remains the major unlearned lesson from Columbine. Depression drove one of the Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold. Yet it lurks so deeply in the recesses of our conception of the tragedy that it fails to register in an obvious case like this. ( Mark Oppenheimer points out another Columbine misunderstanding in the Hermeler story.)

Columbine became synonymous with mass murder, but it was actually a murder-suicide, and suicide was the primary driver for Dylan. The other killer, Eric Harris, was a homicidal psychopath. But Dylan was primarily suicidal, and everything we’ve learned about the two desperate Australian twins echoes his misery and depression. ( You can read much of Dylan’s journal here .)

Deep depression, in fact, has been a significant factor in the vast majority of school shootings. A comprehensive Secret Service study stated that “most attackers exhibited a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts at some point prior to their attack (78 percent). More than half of the attackers had a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate (61 percent).”

Last year, Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, broke a decade of silence with a powerful essay in O Magazine describing the depths of Dylan’s depression. She was candid about her failure and her husband’s to grasp the significance or danger. Of course they didn’t. Few parents do. Because we don’t talk about it. Teachers and administrators are afraid to address it, and journalists shy away from our obligation as well.

The twins’ suicide pact ought to highlight a much wider truth. Mass murders grab the headlines, but depression is a much greater threat to your child. If you have a son or daughter in school today, it is very unlikely he will be shot by a kid like Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold. It is far more likely that your child will die at his or her own hand, as Kristin Hermeler did, because of undiagnosed depression. Future Columbines are a real threat, and the safety measures employed to address them have been wise. Tragedies like the Australian suicide pact are a greater threat. We have done virtually nothing to prevent them. We haven’t learned from that half of the Columbine story.

Photograph by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images.