By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

In Spokane County in 2020, males died by suicide at 5 times the rate of females according to statistics from the Spokane Regional Health District. In 2020, the crude suicide rate among males of all ages in Spokane County was 30.4 per 100,000 population, while the crude suicide rate among females of all ages in Spokane County was 6.1 per 100,000 population. Interestingly, in Spokane County, although males consistently die by suicide more often than females, a higher percentage of suicide attempts occurs among females compared to males. In Spokane County in 2022, 62.4% of emergency department visits for suicide attempts occurred among females.

Helping young men and their families in Spokane County survive their mental health issues is a primary focus of the Kellen Cares Foundation, a local nonprofit co-founded by Kimber Erickson. Ms. Erickson helped form the foundation after she and her husband lost their nineteen-year-old son Kellen by suicide on January 23, 2020, who is pictured above.

Ms. Erickson said, “Our world was turned upside down when our son Kellen died by suicide. Kellen was always a very well-liked kid who made friends very easily, so when he told us he was struggling with anxiety and depression toward the end of high school we were caught off guard. To the outside world, he seemed to have everything going for him including an easy-going personality.

“Kellen was always inquisitive and a deep thinker. Sometimes this deep thinking led to anxiety about what his future would hold and how he could possibly make it in the real world. He hid this anxiety from his friends and shared only glimpses of it with his family until the last few weeks of high school.

“His anxiety built into a debilitating depressive episode and he was not even able to attend his own graduation. Kellen truly believed that he was the only one who felt the way he did no matter how many times his family told him that he wasn’t. The mental pain he was experiencing was excruciating to watch.  He was willing to try therapy and medication and it seemed to help after several weeks but ultimately was not enough.

“With our limited knowledge about the mental health world, we tried everything we could to find help for him. As parents, there is no worse feeling than not being able to help your child. We had the awareness but could not find the solutions. After losing Kellen and learning about the overwhelmingly high statistics of male suicide in particular, we decided we needed to help others avoid the pain of what we were experiencing and what Kellen felt he could not escape. We have become dedicated to finding ways to help boys and young men in our community survive their mental health issues.”

The Kellen Cares Foundation has a four-pronged approach to their work: Education/Resources, Awareness, Community Support, and Fundraising.

Under the rubric of Education and Resources, the Kellen Cares Foundation has sponsored two Helping Boys Thrive Summits, one in 2022 and one in 2023. Both had over 200 people attend. One of the highlights from the summits was a presentation by Dr. Michael Gurian who explained differences between male and female brains. According to Dr. Gurian, testosterone levels drop when boys become depressed, which results in less of their brain activity in the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the area that controls impulses and also is the center which would control whether a male reached out for help. When a male with low testosterone gets an impulse to use a gun to kill themselves, for example, it is harder for a low-testosterone male brain to stop the impulse. Again according to Dr. Gurian, a female brain can have the same impulses, but the way female brains are set up, they are much more likely to call for help. To learn more from Dr. Gurian, see the Q and A with him on the Kellen Cares Foundation website.

Ms. Erickson said, “People who came out of the summits wanted to learn more, especially about the brain. In addition, people were excited to help each other and talk more about the issues.”

Also a part of their education efforts, The Kellen Cares Foundation helped bring a national peer-to-peer suicide prevention program called Hope Squad to several Spokane area schools. Kellen Cares paid for the training of the school advisors last Spring so that most of these squads could be launched this Fall.

To promote awareness and support the community, the Kellen Cares Foundation uses its website and social media to share what is already out there regarding suicide prevention. Their outreach is directed primarily at Spokane County, but they have some presence in Seattle, Pullman, and out of state. Kellen Cares raises funds so they can participate in local events like sponsoring a backboard at Hoopfest. Kellen Cares also sponsored a Suicide Prevention Coalition event and is interested in funding some research as well.

When asked how she keeps up energy for work in suicide, Ms. Erickson said, “Everything we do inspires me and make me want to do more because I see the response from people and I see how people want to change. The biggest part of my motivation is from my son, Kellen. I know this is what he would want us to do.”

Ms. Erickson said that, “One of the most important tools we have on our website for suicide prevention in a crisis is the recent addition of the 988 phone number. Call 988 when you don’t know where to turn for help with mental health. They can help guide you.”

To learn more about resources regarding suicide prevention in general and boys in particular, visit the Kellen Cares Foundation website.

Kimber Erickson is the Co-founder and President of the Kellen Cares Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. She is also the Office Manager at a family physical therapy clinic. In addition, she is an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention.

Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.