Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg recounted the story of a young woman whose mother took her own life.
“Not long after, a rabbi and a psychologist came to her. They told the woman, ‘Tell people your mother died in an accident,'” he said. “But that response in no way connects this poor young woman to her Jewish community. It alienates her from her Jewish community.”
For far too long, the organized Jewish community has “swept [the topic of] suicide under the rug,” said Rabbi Gruenberg, Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s new senior rabbi. “We must be connected to each other and take care of each other. When someone is in need, we must bring them in.”
That was the overriding message of “Raising Awareness: A Jewish Community Gathering and Discussion on Suicide,” hosted Aug. 8 at Chizuk Amuno. Approximately 100 people attended the gathering, which was co-sponsored by the Stevenson synagogue, Jewish Community Services, Sol Levinson & Bros., Jmore and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
At the two-hour event, Kat Olbrich, AFSP’s Maryland area director, offered an overview of the suicide epidemic, sharing statistics as well as information about risk factors, warning signs, prevention strategies and mental health resources.
“In Maryland, one person dies from suicide [approximately] every 15 hours,” she said. “It’s the 11th leading cause of death in the state and the third leading cause of death in people ages 15-34. … White males between the ages of 45 and 55 are at greatest risk for dying from suicide because they have more access to lethal firearms.”
Firearms account for 51 percent of all suicides, Olbrich said, with that figure rising to 70 percent among individuals serving in the military.
She said people with mental health conditions, substance abuse issues, chronic health problems and chronic pain are at greater risk for suicide. Additional risk factors include prolonged stress, traumatic life events and the loss of loved ones. Past suicide attempts, a family history of suicide and childhood abuse, neglect or trauma place individuals at increased risk as well.
There is no single cause for suicide, said Olbrich. Instead, suicides take place when multiple factors converge.
“[People who are suicidal] have reached a crisis point and they are desperate to escape pain,” she said. “Their thinking becomes limited.”
Among the warning signs to watch, Olbrich advised, are when someone talks about not wanting to live; worries about being a burden; says they feel trapped or is in unbearable pain. She also said to look for increased substance use; disturbed sleep patterns; reckless behavior; withdrawal from family and friends; an expressed interest in seeking means of killing oneself; and the giving away of possessions.
“Reach out,” Olbrich said. “Using the word suicide doesn’t plant the idea in someone’s head. Listen to their story, express concern, don’t minimize their feelings or try to fix it. Offer to take them to a mental health professional.”
In her remarks, Stacey Meadows, JCS’s supervisor for therapy services, focused on the stigma associated with mental health conditions. “Social expectations are that we are happy,” she said. “Being unhappy is [considered] abnormal, unacceptable and unattractive. But what happens when we’re feeling bad?”
Meadows said the inability to express unhappiness and depression perpetuates the stigma associated with mental illness and discourages people from seeking professional help. She advocated a climate of compassion and dialogue.
“When you ask someone how they are, really take the time or make the time to find out,” she said.
Howard Reznick, JCS’s manager for prevention education, recommended employing “the four Cs” – camaraderie, competence, companionship and compassion – to reduce the possibility of teenage suicides. He advised parents “to communicate to their teens that it’s OK not to feel great all the time, and it’s OK to talk about that. Help kids to identify at least one or two trusted adults in their lives.”
Addressing survivors of suicide loss, JCS clinician and grief counselor Rachael Schultz Abrams said that everyone’s grief reaction is different and there is no fixed time table for processing grief.
“There is often immense guilt — ‘How did I not see this coming?’ ‘What did I do or not do?’” she said. “But no one person is responsible.”
Abrams stressed the importance of self-compassion, self-care and sharing one’s grief with others. Feelings of grief and mourning may be triggered by anniversaries, holidays or even just a song or smell, she said.
“When that happens, have a loose plan — someone to call, deep breathing, listening to music,” Abrams suggested. “We have permission to feel all our feelings. It’s OK to smile and be happy, too.”
For information, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To contact JCS, call 410-466-9200.