Bob and Arleen Holmes learned a lot about their son when he went on trial two years ago for killing 12 people inside a Colorado movie theater.
The 2012 shooting and 11-week-long criminal trial of James E. Holmes have become infamous examples of many societal concerns, most notably the status of mental health treatment in the United States.
That’s not something the parents of James Holmes run away from.
“We’d go wherever people are willing to listen to our message,” Arleen Holmes said.
The couple will join three other families, as well as a slew of local experts, in a two-day-long community symposium which aims to identify the failures of the American mental health system.
Organizer and Penn State professor LaVarr McBride said the goal of the symposium is to start a community conversation about mental health in hopes that it will eventually led to changes that prevent mass shootings and other acts of violence steaming from mental illness.
In many ways, a lack of communication led James Holmes to devolve into the mental state that brought him to that movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
Bob and Arleen Holmes, for example, didn’t know that some of their son’s teachers had concerns about his withdrawn nature at school. They didn’t know his high school cross-country coach worried because it seemed difficult for him to be around other students.
The San Diego, Calif. residents also didn’t know about the mental health treatment James Holmes sought at the University of Colorado, Denver where he was working to complete a PhD program. They weren’t aware of his diagnosis, or the medication he was prescribed.
Bob and Arleen Holmes didn’t know their son told his school therapist he wanted to hurt people.
“It came out at the trial,” Bob Holmes said. “All this stuff came out at the trial.”
But no one came to them with their concerns. Communication, he said, could have helped them help their son – especially while he was living away from the family during graduate school.
“He was in pretty bad shape, but nobody let us know,” Bob Holmes said. Both he and his wife are critical of rules confined within HIPPA that prevent parents from learning about the mental status of their adult children.
James Holmes was 26 at the time of the mass shooting.
“There needs to be a way to keep parents in the loop,” Bob Holmes said.
When it comes to mental illness, Arleen Holmes said she has learned that early detection is key. That’s why she and her husband have set out to tell their story and inform the public so that similar shootings can be avoided.
“Mental illness needs to be talked about more, we want to stigmatize people less and make it more of an open conversation,” Arleen Holmes said.
The signs can be easy to miss when you don’t know what to look for, they said. Bob Holmes said he and his wife had no idea their son would ever hurt anyone.
“It came as a big shock,” he said. “In our case, we didn’t realize he had a mental illness until he committed the crime.”
The conversation about mental illness has to start before an incident occurs, not after, they said.
“We’re not letting ourselves off the hook,” Arleen Holmes said. “It was us, too. We’re his parents. We were not sufficiently aware and educated. We readily admit that, but everyone has to be tuned it. It has to be a group effort.”
In addition to the Holmes' will be other families, including parents of shooting victims, like Colorado resident Bob Autobee.
Autobee’s son, Eric, was killed while working as a prison guard about 15 years ago. After years of anger and resentment, Autobee came to forgive Edward Montour, the man who killed his son, and now advocates against the death penalty throughout the country.
Local experts participating in the event include several professors from Penn State and Duquesne University and defense attorney Patrick Thomassey, who represents Alex Hribal, a former Franklin Regional student accused of stabbing several peers.
The conference is hosted by Penn State Beaver and Ambridge Area School District and will be held October 9 and 10. The agenda includes break-out sessions and panel discussions.