Healing Columbine's Wounded Minds

Want to make a film on a tough but relevant topic without big time Hollywood backing? So does Columbine survivor Sam Granillo. Over the past four years, he's raised about $30,000 for Columbine: Wounded Minds, a journey into healing the mental scars of those directly affected by Columbine and other mass shootings. Granillo surpassed another goal of $7,000 via Kickstarter to film the next segment with fellow Columbine survivor Richard Castaldo, who was placed in a wheelchair as a result of the April 20, 1999, Columbine shooting that left 15 dead, including the two killers.

What was the film's genesis?

It has always been in the back of my mind, but I also knew it would be a difficult project. When Michael Moore came out with the movie Bowling for Columbine, which arguably exploited the shooting, I was further turned off to the idea.

Then in 2009 -- 10 years after Columbine -- I realized that I needed counseling, but also realized what I wanted to make the film about: raising awareness for people who need long-term healing. Everyone wants to help out right away, and that's great, but one or two years down the road you feel like you're on your own.

Along my journey, I'm realizing that counseling isn't necessarily the answer because I'm finding that everyone has their own style of therapy. Building communities of people who can talk to one another is one of the big answers that I've found.

Do other Columbine survivors feel the same way?

In both formal interviews and casual conversations with friends, I've seen that everybody is still having problems -- OK, maybe not everybody, but a good majority of people. And a lot of people are only now coming forward to create groups, communities, support meetings and stuff like that. Only now. So it's not just me.

How much of this project is personal, and how much of it is for the "greater good," so to speak?

It started off being extremely personal; sort of a one-man show. It's become less about me now, and more universal.

Although, the project has become incredibly therapeutic for me. For example, I'm not having as many "chase dreams" anymore, which is incredible. They were usually not terrifying, but it was just the constant stress of running or hiding. I pretty much had a nightmare every night for a decade. I have never relived the event in a dream, but I've had similar feelings provoked from the dreams I have had. Often when I'm trapped, it's in a building or parking structure, where I'm lost in a maze of endless doorways and stairwells that don't seem to go anywhere. I seem to always be running and hiding from someone who is, more or less, hunting me. I rarely see them, if ever, and if I do, it's always a close brush with death. The most troubling part of these dreams was not their severity, but frequency. Nearly every single night for over a decade. It just gets tiring to not have good dreams.

Ever since I started this project and started talking about it, my dreams have been evolving. I haven't eliminated my nightmares, but I seem to have regular dreams -- at least they seem more similar to the dreams other people talk about having.

So it's definitely important to get the word out, to get these conversations going, to let people know, more universally, that for anyone who goes through tragedy it never goes away. And it doesn't have to be a mass tragedy. Someone could lose their friend in a car accident and they have to live with that for the rest of their life. It never gets easier, either. I'm just trying to get the conversations going and get the word out that everyone should always be there for one another, you know? And it's amazing how many people don't know that.

You don't really bring gun control into the conversation; why is that?

That is one of the first things people ask me. But I'm more interested in the mental health aspect of hopefully identifying people who could cause harm to others early on. We don't know how many shootings we could have already stopped by reaching out to people or trying to figure out who needs help mentally.

But I think it's more of a people issue than a gun issue. Namely, more of a mental health issue. And that turns out to be something even more personal to me. I think there's not a whole lot middle ground in the gun debate. It's just something easy to talk about, and not a whole lot of people like to talk about mental health.

What is your sense of how society talks about mental health? It usually seems secondary to gun control.

If someone really wants to hurt somebody, they will. That's one issue, and it's not necessarily a matter of guns being the problem. It's interesting how long it's taken for this to become an issue, to the point that basically a whole bunch of American children had to go through this for the president to really sit down and recognize that there needs to be a handle on things. I've been trying to talk to him forever. I had sent them a few emails many many, many months ago. The great news is that I was finally contacted by someone who works directly underneath the president to possibly help with future events in D.C. on the matter. It's all still in the works and there is nothing solid as of yet, but at least the lines of communications are open.

In general, I don't think people like to talk about their feelings But maybe this generation (I'm 30 years old) is different and now that we are moving into more powerful positions, we may discuss our feelings more openly. It's unfortunate how many tragedies have had to happen before then.