We should all be alarmed by the recent increase in Kansas teen suicide rates.
According to the State Child Death Review Board — a little-known body with an incredibly important job — there were 32 teen suicides in 2017, compared with 20 in 2016. For deaths by suicide across all ages, Kansas has seen a 45 percent increase from 1999 to 2016, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s important to be aware of the problem, and important to address it. That’s why it’s heartening to see Gov. Laura Kelly, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and state legislators step up. Everyone wants to do the right thing.
But how do you actually accomplish it?
Yes, we need to listen to our kids. Yes, they need to feel free to share their feelings with us and other trusted adults. Yes, they need to know that there is no shame or judgment in store if they’re struggling. But we can do more.
We know, for example, that LGBT youth often face and increased risk of suicide because of bullying and harassment. But legislators in our state have been unwilling to make discrimination against gay and lesbian people illegal. That would be a simple and powerful signal that everyone is valued in the state.
We know that teens can lose themselves in social media and online cliques, where cyberbullying takes an immense toll. But we continue to buy children smart phones and insist that technology be integrated into classrooms. Arguably, sensible limits would have positive mental health affects.
We know that teens — and everyone else, for that matter — benefit from stable and resourced home environments. But as our economy and the world changes, more and more people face financial ruin if they miss a single paycheck or lose health insurance. We could bolster programs that offer training and support for parents who work every day for their families.
And perhaps most importantly, we need to tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness. If a child breaks a limb, we take them to a doctor. If a child is depressed, we tell them to snap out of it. They deserve medical attention. Doing so will literally save lives.
It will take all of us, working on many levels to address this challenge. Our teenagers need to feel that the opportunities they have, and the lives they will experience, will be full of meaning and joy and value. We owe that to them.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night, or chat online at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.