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Sometimes kids need to hear the truth about suicide — mine did

A couple of years ago, a cousin of mine committed suicide. His death was shocking to my family — he seemed so happy, popular and full of life. Surely no one this happy could have done such an act. Nonetheless, there it was — a young life extinguished much too early.

As his funeral came and went, nobody in my family would utter the word “suicide.” It was an “accidental death.” When the word would come up, it was immediately shut down. In small circles, we would talk about it, but always in a whisper.

One afternoon my older son, who was 6 at the time, asked what suicide was. I asked him where he had heard the word. He answered, “I heard you talking about it.” So I told him. I explained to him that the funeral he recently attended was for someone who had committed suicide. I told him that someone who seems happy can be in pain, and we don’t always see it. This pain makes them so sad that they feel that the only way to end the pain is to die.

More: I may never get off depression medication, but that’s OK

My mother was furious with me for telling my son the truth. She, like the others, refused to consider the manner of my cousin’s death a suicide. Others in my family said kids cannot comprehend matters like depression or why someone would commit such an act. These topics, they told me, are better left not spoken of.

That’s exactly the problem; no one talks about it.

Why did I tell my son? Mostly because he asked. The whole situation made me think about why we don’t talk about suicide more often. Why is it such a taboo?

Here I was whispering about it, and my son overheard me. I too was treating the topic as if it were distasteful or forbidden. I realized that if my son asks me a question, I need to be truthful with him despite how unpleasant the topic is to me. He had the right to know the truth. I can’t shield him from everything horrible and sad in the world. Suicide is a silent epidemic that claims an average of 100-plus young lives each week in the U.S. No social, racial or economic barriers are immune to it.

If you think your family is immune to suicide, consider some of these statistics:

  • Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24.
  • Suicide claims more lives of young adults and teenagers than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease, combined.
  • Four out of 5 teens who attempt suicide show clear warning signs.
  • Each day in the U.S., there is an average of over 5,400 attempts by young people grades seven to 12.

In my family, as in many others, the topics of suicide, depression or anything that would make our family look imperfect were never spoken about. Those topics were kept to ourselves, never to be discussed in the open. In fact, you didn’t even get treatment for depression or any other “mental” disease. These weren’t real illnesses, just weaknesses. Now that I am older, I can look back and recognize all the signs of depression in some of my close relatives. It runs in our family, and we refuse to acknowledge it.

Recently a Brooklyn teenager committed suicide because of constant bullying. In hindsight, it’s clear to see the signs of his pain. However, in our busy lives, we often figure it’s due to immature antics and that things like bullying will pass. Looking back at my cousin who passed, I can see all the signs. He was under constant pressure to perform professionally, trying to make his family and himself happy. When he couldn’t keep up anymore, he gave up. That giving up ended his life.

It’s time to quit making depression and suicide taboo. They are a part of our lives. They are not limited to certain ethnicities or social statuses. Take the time to recognize when someone is trying to reach out. When my kids tell me they are feeling bad or sad, I listen, no matter how trivial. The worse thing we, as a society, can do is continue to ignore it — let’s talk about it.

More: Teen suicide: How to help the survivors

If you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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