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Opening Up About Suicide

Jewish groups start addressing mental wellness—for those who are suffering, and the people who love them

by
Paula Jacobs
February 02, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner’s life changed forever on July 17, 1996. While leading a USY trip in Israel, he received the news about the suicide of his beloved oldest brother, Gabriel. He still recalls the kindness of the couple who comforted him during his flight home to the U.S. for the funeral, the challenge of concentrating on his studies as a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and how he felt solely responsible for healing his parents’ wounds because his other two brothers were married with families. “I felt I was carrying the world on my shoulders,” he said.

Over time, Kirshner began to heal, thanks to a supportive professor, therapy sessions, and reciting Kaddish daily for 11 months. “It never gets easier; you just learn how to live with it better,” he said. Since then, Kirshner has made de-stigmatizing mental wellness and suicide a life mission, speaking and writing regularly on the topic.

Upon becoming spiritual leader at Temple Emanuel in Closter, New Jersey, 14 years ago, Kirshner dedicated his first sermon to Gabe and his lifelong struggle with mental wellness. His goal was to address the issue upfront, create a safe communal space to discuss sensitive issues, and let congregants understand that their rabbi, too, has endured life struggles. 

“We need to fight the stigma; 54% of Americans have some connective tissue to suicide. If we still whisper the names of diseases and don’t treat it as the way we treat cancer or a car accident, we are not fixing the problem,” said Kirshner. “Talking about it, seeing the signs, and creating safe spaces are mission critical to helping the cause.”

It has taken years for the Jewish community to break its silence on suicide. Not until 2009, with the founding of Elijah’s Journey, did a Jewish organization focus specifically on suicide awareness. Today, suicide—which is closely intertwined with mental health—is gradually surfacing on the radar of the Jewish communal agenda. That includes programs and services for different ages and backgrounds, as well as resources for clergy.

“If you are clergy, it is important to talk about suicide on the bimah, it is really important for youth groups to address suicide as one of the topics that is being addressed, it is very important for workplaces to include conversations about suicide risk and the warning signs,” said Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology and a professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work. “That is the conversation that will save a life.”

Known suicide risk factors include increased unemployment, substance abuse, domestic abuse, relationship issues, gun usage, and chronic health problems—exacerbated today due to COVID-19 social isolation, stress, and anxiety. Today, suicide awareness and prevention should be prioritized as a serious health issue, say experts. Over the last two decades suicide rates have risen in the U.S. Suicide is the country’s 10th-leading cause of death; in 2018, 48,344 Americans died by suicide, while 1.4 million Americans attempted suicide. (No current research exists on the Jewish community but some experts posit that it tracks with the general population.)

The suicide of a loved one can be traumatic. “The impact of a family suicide may decrease over time, but it never goes away. There are so many unresolved feelings, regrets, and questions,” said Ariel Mintz, a Cleveland psychiatrist and chairman of the board of Refuat Hanefesh, an organization that aims to create a Jewish community that is more aware, respectful, and empathetic to people living with mental illness.

Erik Bean understands this from firsthand experience. His family is still trying to make sense of the suicide of their teenage son, Ethan, in 2018. “No matter how well you know someone you don’t know them if they are going to take their lives. It can happen to anybody because there is no 100% way to prevent suicide,” said Bean, a Detroit-area educator and textbook author who hopes to promote better mental health with his children’s book, Ethan’s Healthy Mind Express: A Children’s First Mental Health Primer Paperback; the Ethan Bean Mental Wellness Foundation, which the family created; and a new mental health awareness initiative for adults and children at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, Michigan, launched at the urging of the family’s rabbis and synagogue community.

“It’s hard for loved ones to watch someone struggling with depression,” said Shaun Weinstock, an Atlanta real estate developer whose father, Michael, a successful attorney, suffered depression after his law firm closed; three years later in July 2014, he died by suicide during a family vacation. Today, Weinstock tries to raise awareness about suicide by sharing the story and wearing a suicide bracelet—a rubber wrist band with the words, “End the stigma. Save Lives. #TeamWeinstock,” which his family created four months after their father’s death as an awareness and unity symbol to wear at the local “Out of the Darkness” suicide awareness community walk. “People often ask what it means and so it creates an opportunity to educate people.”

Normalizing mental illness by providing a platform for people to talk about their diagnoses and struggles is key. “In the past, there was fear about asking someone if they had suicidal thoughts but research shows the opposite,” said Mintz. “The more people see that others are also struggling, the more individuals feel comfortable admitting their own illness. The more we as a community write and talk about this subject, the easier it will be for people experiencing suicide ideation to open up to family and friends and to seek the professional help they need.”

Mintz also advises parents to initiate conversations about mental health with their children: “The more adults show they are comfortable discussing it, the more likely kids will talk to their parents or teachers about it, and grown adults will feel comfortable speaking with their friends and family.”

Sharing personal stories on blogs and social media represents an important tool for those struggling with mental illness and suicide ideation. It also helps reduce the shame of families impacted by suicide.

In the Jewish community, some programs focus specifically on suicide, such as Back Engaged Now!—a Jewish suicide outreach prevention project in Southern California founded by mental health professional and rabbinical student Jonah Sanderson. Others, such as Refaenu, provide suicide resources as part of broader mental health initiatives.

The Blue Dove Foundation addresses suicide through a Jewish lens to show how Jewish values can help the healing process, says executive director Gabrielle Spatt. Founded in 2018, the Atlanta-based organization provides Jewish organizations worldwide with resources and educational programs such as: a speaker series, workshops, a mental wellness toolkit, and a book of personal stories. This past December, an online program, “Quieting the Silence: Suicide Awareness in the Jewish Community,” featured experts from across the U.S.

“There is a spiritual need to feel understood and connected, and the Jewish community can be the place where people go to get help and not a place to avoid,” said Daniel Epstein, co-founder of The Blue Dove Foundation and director of The Berman Center, an outpatient mental health and addiction center. “People need to start making mental health a theme in schools, in synagogues, and with friends and family groups.”

Fifteen years ago, Miriam Ament, was hospitalized with depression. For years, she kept successive hospitalizations a secret until confiding in Glenn Close, whom she met after winning an auction prize to meet the actress. “I realized that if I could tell my story to a famous actress, I could change my community,” said Ament.

This encounter inspired Ament to create No Shame on U. “We are normalizing the conversation so that people are comfortable talking to people in ways they wouldn’t do previously,” she said. Based in Chicago, No Shame on U aims to raise awareness and eliminate the stigma of mental health in the Jewish community through community outreach programs, classes and workshops, educational presentations, special teen programs, and online tools and resources .

No Shame on U, JCFS Chicago, and MISSD (The Medication-Induced Suicide Prevention and Education Foundation in Memory of Stewart Dolin) have partnered to provide suicide prevention education and support in the Jewish community with support from JUF’s Breakthrough Fund. “We all have to ask ourselves, could we respond to someone in crisis?” said Diane Kushnir Halivni, community educator and coordinator, suicide prevention and support, JCFS Chicago.

Across North America, Jewish Children and Family Service agencies have risen to this challenge. In 2015, after a surge of suicide deaths among local Jewish young adults, Jewish Family Service Houston assembled a coalition of 40 local Jewish agencies and synagogues to formulate a plan. Today JFS Houston’s comprehensive program includes: the national Mental Health First Aid®, which trains volunteers to offer help to those in mental distress; Sources of Strength, a suicide prevention program for middle school and high school students; Touching the Heart, a text-messaging program that provides messages of support for high school seniors through graduate school and beyond; and Bright Stars, a bereavement program for those who have lost someone to suicide.

Some initiatives address the LGBTQ community. For example, Eshel, an advocacy organization for Orthodox LGBTQ individuals and families, provides access to national suicide crisis resources such as The Trevor Project, and Eshel’s warm line (1-724-ESHEL01) refers those with suicide ideation and other mental health issues to therapists sensitive to the LGBTQ and Orthodox community. “For people whose identities are clashing with one another, it takes a skilled therapist who is aware of both their religious and sexual identities,” explained executive director Miryam Kabakov.

“Young LGTBQ folks who have access to an LGTBQ-affirming space are less likely to have suicide ideation,” said Jaimie Krass, national director of youth programs at Keshet, an organization that works for the full equality of LGBTQ Jews and families in Jewish life. Because of LGBTQ risk factors for suicide and other mental health issues, Keshet integrates mental wellness into its programming, including one-on-one conversations and access to pertinent resources.

Suicide awareness programs are a positive step, said Efrem Epstein, founder of Elijah’s Journey. But he also cautions against jumping on the bandwagon without consulting experts trained in suicidology in order to ensure that these programs will be effective and incorporate appropriate messaging. “Pay attention to the best practices that the American Association of Suicidology recommends,” he said. “I want increased programming and awareness but it has to be done responsibly.”

The Jewish community cannot bury its head in the sand. “It’s important to destigmatize conversations about mental health and be supportive,” said Rabbi Ari Kaiman of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. “The tragedy is not only in the loss of life but in the failure of the community to fully support that person from making that choice in the first place.”

If you or your loved one needs immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. This national network of local crisis centers provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources for them and their families.

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.

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