Survivors of Columbine shooting discuss struggles with PTSD, anxiety

ABC News

(LITTLETON, Colo.) — When 12 students and one teacher were gunned down in a mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, the tragic event marked a turning point for America.

Twenty five years later, some survivors recall how they have dealt with the physical and mental impact of PTSD, anxiety and depression.

“It’s a big part of my identity and who I am and not necessarily that day, but more who I’ve become,” Heather Martin, a Columbine survivor, told ABC News Live. “And a large part of that is because of the aftermath overcoming.”

America endured school shootings before Columbine, but never one quite like the April 20, 1999, shooting.

“We didn’t have any context for a school shooting, couldn’t name a school shooting,” teacher Kiki Leyba a survivor, said.

According to an ABC News review of the Gun Violence Archive, a website that tracks all shootings in the United States, 415 people have been killed in school shootings since the Columbine attacks. As of April 2, 2024, 907 have been wounded.

The Columbine High School shooting was one of the first instances where authorities brought in psychological experts to help the survivors cope with PTSD.

It took 47 minutes for SWAT teams to enter the school after the shooting started. It took five hours for law enforcement to declare the school under control.

“What we learned over the time was, certainly back then, you know, it was surround, wait for SWAT,” Grant Whitus, one of the first SWAT officers to run inside Columbine High School, said. “But later on, everybody was going in. So that’s what we were teaching. You get in small group of people, we first started with four, you first four go immediately. Then it cut down to one- and two-man’s response to the active shooter. But no matter what, the first person was through that door, engaging the shooter. At least, they may not be able to take him out, but he can’t be off shooting people when he’s in a firefight with the cops.”

The survivors of that day say they have suffered from trauma for 25 years, and the tragedy still haunts them.

“That six weeks of therapy after it initially started, I received the insomnia diagnosis as well as the question of PTSD,” Melissa Missy Mendo said. “Somebody had asked my mom, you know, ‘Why did you feel that Melissa was going to be, or that Missy was going to be different?’ And she said ‘I knew this: It was going to be different because she was 14 years old, sleeping with her shoes on in between her parents every night for weeks.'”

As the years passed, the survivors of the shooting sought to connect with like-minded individuals who could understand their pain. In a snowball effect of grief and loss, the survivors of the Columbine shooting became the first modern iteration of mass shooting survivors. They found solace in their similarities in a group that only grew.

The Columbine group connected with other mass shooting survivors, such as survivors from the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012 and the Washington Navy Yard shooting in 2013.

The group calls themselves The Rebels Project, a network of people who support one another across the country.

“I feel fortunate to have a large survivor network from The Rebels Project because there were other moms in there that had gone through it,” Mendo said. “And they were like, when you start to talk to them about them, make sure that it’s going to be age appropriate and make sure that it’s situational. Because the story you want to give them at the beginning is going to be something that they can understand.”

While the former students, now adults, are using unity to move forward, the teachers nearing retirement are handling their past experiences differently. Retired Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis is embracing the lessons he learned from the tragic incident and using them to teach others.

He is a safety and emergency management adviser for the school district and travels the world, sharing his 25 years of experience.

“Every morning before my feet hit the ground, I recite the names of my beloved [students]: Cassie Bernell, Stephen Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matt Kechter, Daniel Mauser, Danny Rohrbough, Dave Sanders, Rachel Scott, Isaiah Shoels, John Tomlin, and Lauren Townsend. They give me the inspiration to do what I’m doing right now,” DeAngelis said. “I’m going to continue doing it because I am not going to allow them to die in vain, along with all the other students and staff members who have lost their lives. And that’s a promise that I can guarantee.”

Before his retirement in 2014, DeAngelis said he had to check himself into the emergency room over 10 times because of anxiety attacks. He added that he was able to reduce the frequency of his attacks by consoling former students who faced similar problems.

On April 20, 1999, the survivors who shared their experiences with ABC News described it as the worst day of their lives. However, 25 years later, they said some positive outcomes have emerged. One of them is the bond the survivors share with each other and the strength they derive from it. One survivor said some outstanding individuals are really tough, capable of enduring challenging situations and fighting through them.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.