Solomon Elhindi was a small boy with a big smile, a hearty laugh and a fondness for telling jokes, pulling pranks on his friends and loudly sharing random thoughts with classmates. He brightened up his classes at Winona Middle School, where he was in the eighth grade, by doing such stunts as an impromptu yoga session or a rap battle.
Solomon was involved in just about every extracurricular activity possible in Winona, so he was well-known and well-liked. His father and mother were too. Mohamed Elhindi is the chairman of the Winona school board and chief information officer for the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. His mother, Carol, is a librarian at Winona State University. They were a tight family who valued education and community involvement. Solomon was 14, with a bright life ahead of him.
Except few knew that Solomon had also become depressed. In December, he began having anxiety about keeping up with his studies. It was bad enough that he was checked into inpatient treatment at a hospital and prescribed antidepressants.
In January, after returning home, Solomon took his own life.
Since then, his family has been grieving, and trying to figure out how to respond to such a tragedy. Recently, Mohamed announced that he would step down from the school board to start a nonprofit that will increase awareness of suicide prevention, mental health and diversity, particularly in rural areas where help is scarce.
Mohamed had just arrived in the Republic of Sudan, the country where he was born and now has volunteer projects, when he got the call that Solomon had died. He rushed back home to Winona to find that neighbors had poured in to help. They were cleaning the house and cooking food.
“Our family and friends were amazing,” said Carol. “They just came in and took care of us. It was wonderful.”
At a time of suspicion toward Muslims, Mohamed said he and his family have been embraced by the community. He was elected to the school board twice, the last time without opposition.
“They lifted me and trusted me and made me part of the family,” Mohamed said. “This community has been phenomenal.”
When there was a fire at the Islamic Center in Winona in 2013, some wondered if it might have been arson, a notion Mohamed immediately dismissed. Asked at the time how he knew it was not a hate crime, Mohamed said, “Because this is Winona.”
Condolences written on the funeral home’s website express a particular fondness for Solomon, remembered for his jovial personality and quick wit. Little kids looked up to him as a role model, people said.
“He was just a child, he was the sweetest kid,” said Carol. “The biggest thing about him is that he felt so much empathy to other people’s pain. He was always laughing and joking to make other people happy. He felt everything so deeply.”
Mohamed said his son constantly sought out the underdogs to make them feel more accepted. He gravitated toward “those on the sideline, those perceived to be weak,” Mohamed said. “He always brought them in” to the group and made them feel special.
The stereotype of the depressed child is of a loner. But Solomon played soccer, basketball and hockey and even joined the drama club. He loved cross-country, in particular competing with his mom in 5K races.
“He always beat me,” said Carol.
Mohamed said what surprised them is how quickly Solomon’s mental health deteriorated. Solomon was put on an antidepressant, Prozac, then switched to Effexor. The family was aware that sometimes the drugs can cause thoughts of suicide. “He said that if it got to that point he would talk to us or his brother Sam,” said Carol. “At 14, he didn’t understand what he was going through. I think he should have been taken off the medications.”
The Elhindis say they believe antidepressants can be helpful to many people but don’t believe they helped their son, and likely exacerbated his symptoms.
The Elhindis know Solomon’s struggle is not unique. They can count at least six suicides of young people in the area in recent years. That’s why they are setting up Solomon’s Song, a nonprofit focused on helping kids like him. The first event will be a fundraiser 5K run and concert on Aug. 13, with proceeds directed to mental health education efforts in Winona schools.
“This is a fight no one should have alone,” said Mohamed. “We need to hold each other and take care of each other.”
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