‘Kids are struggling’: Suicide rate soaring for Black children and teens nationwide

WASHINGTON — It’s easy to hear the pride in Gina Smallwood’s voice as she talks about her only son, Kelvin.

“His first little job was at the elementary school library,” she said. “He was just really, really bright, very talented, athletic.”

A talented boy who became an honor roll student at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

“So many other adults will be like, ‘we love Kelvin’ and I will be like, I love him, too,” she said.

Weeks before Kelvin’s 20th birthday, Smallwood said she got a call she would never forget.

“That’s when the officer said, ‘Ms. Smallwood, we found your son and he’s dead,” she said.

This was February 2008. Smallwood said she was traveling from Atlanta to Washington D.C. when Kelvin took his own life. She said he used her own gun that had been locked up in her bedroom.

His memorial was March 8, the day that would have been his 20th birthday.

“That was a really, really like numb time and I walked around numb for probably almost two years,” said Smallwood.

She said she thought she was prepared because just a few years before her son died, Smallwood attended a seminar about suicide.

“I remember even having a conversation with Kelvin like ‘have you ever felt this way?’ And he’s like ‘Ma, if I ever thought about killing myself, I will let you know,’’ said Smallwood. “So then it was like, How is it, you know two or three years later, this is happening. At that moment, I felt cheated because it was like, What did I miss?”

The CDC reports guns are the most common method used in suicides.

A recent analysis from Johns Hopkins University reveals that last year, the gun suicide rate for Black teens surpassed that of the rate for white teens for the first time. The same report shows the suicide rate for Black kids and teens has tripled over the past two decades.

“Whether it be racism, discrimination…kids are struggling across so many different domains and then in addition to that there’s bullying,” said Dr. Christine Crawford, child psychiatrist in Boston and member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Dr. Crawford said many Black students are facing more stressors and they may not have all the necessary tools to cope with them. Crawford believes this process starts at home.

“Prioritizing conversations around mental health is a matter of safety and quite frankly it’s a matter of your children’s life,” said Crawford.

It’s a conversation that means breaking a cycle of stigma within many Black households.

“A lot of these kids don’t feel comfortable bringing up these topics, these conversations at home because the parents and the caregivers themselves don’t feel comfortable having these discussions,” said Dr. Crawford. “But we really need to be open and honest with each other about how we’re doing and how we’re struggling and the tools and strategies we’re using to cope.”

Crawford said therapy is another vital tool. She acknowledges that there aren’t many Black mental health professionals, but she said that shouldn’t prevent them from seeking additional support.

“It’s hard to not to feel as though your child isn’t going to be judged negatively or you won’t be judge negatively but we have to get our kids in for the services that they need regardless of the color of the clinician,” said Crawford.

Shortly after his death, Smallwood said she channeled her grief into outreach. She created the Kelvin Mikhail Suicide Awareness Campaign, a suicide awareness campaign for people of color with prevention courses for high school and college students.

“When I’m talking to students, sometimes they’re like, ‘We don’t want to hear this. We don’t have it,’ and then a year or two later, hearing them call me and say, ‘I didn’t know that I needed that until this point in my life,’” said Smallwood. “So you have made a difference. I know that Kelvin’s life has spared and saved a lot of lives.”

As she helps students, Smallwood also supports parents suffering the same loss.

“I say be very, very gentle with yourself, do whatever you need to do to survive it,” she said. “Within time, the pain does loosen up, it becomes where you can live with it and you have to fight to be able to get to that.”

It’s a fight that she isn’t doing alone.

“Kelvin would be very, he would be like, ‘That’s my mother. That’s what she does…he’s like ‘Keep telling our story,’” said Smallwood. “He’s always looked out for me so he’s definitely like, “Ma, you’re doing a great job.’

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