Hundreds gathered Monday evening in the gymnasium at George Washington Middle School in Lyons to listen, to talk, and to be present as this school community grieves what seem to be the bewildering deaths by suicide of two young boys in just three months.

Bewildering, yes. But not as out of the ordinary as we might think. Death by suicide is on the rise. And the ages at which this action occurs is, in still rare circumstances, dropping even into middle-school ages. 

Suicide makes most of us deeply uncomfortable. Issues of mental illness generally retain a silencing stigma that further isolates those struggling. The answer, as the GWMS leaders and the wider school community helped teach us this week, is that we need more talk, more careful, thoughtful talk about mental illness, about suicidal ideation than traditionally we have had the courage to undertake.

The views of professionals on this topic have changed quickly. These days the working concept is that all of us need to be aware of behavior changes, of depressive symptoms, of withdrawal from favored activities among the wide range of people in our spheres — our kids, obviously, but also work colleagues, friends, neighbors. And then the advice is to engage those people honestly and directly. “Are you doing OK? You seem quiet. Can we talk?”

The worst outcome is an awkward conversation. The best outcome is that a good person, perhaps lost in their own swirl, finds a connection that leads to a professional contact and assistance.

Not easy. Not foolproof. But far better than silence and silos, better than letting our discomfort with mental illness prevent us from connecting with people. 

One outcome, as we begin to talk more openly, more directly is the realization that, on a wide continuum, mental health challenges are pervasive. Scratch this scab and we will find family members, the kids of friends, old next-door neighbors who are dealing actively with mental illnesses. It can be surprising. But it is OK and it is our society’s reality. 

For all of our talk about openness, it is also crucial to be thoughtful in the language we use around mental illness and suicide. Overly casual talk can be triggering as well as disrespectful.

Finally, our deep sympathy to the families and the friends and the teachers of these two young men. It is a profound loss to our community.