World Suicide Prevention Day is Sept. 10, the first day of Rosh HaShanah. How appropriate that as we begin a new Jewish year we think about how to preserve life, both in our tefillot — prayers — and in our hearts. And maybe it’s time to not only think (and pray) about how we can preserve our own life — which is what so much of the tefillot are about — but also how we can preserve others’ lives as well.
It has been two and a half years since our family lost our beloved Eric, z”l, to this horrible epidemic. And as we have seen in the news, suicide affects everyone from all walks of life.
This past spring, two well-known celebrities, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, took their lives. So many people reached out to me, both in support and with questions about how and why people, who seemingly have so much in their lives and so much to offer, could even consider suicide, let alone go through with it.
At our Shabbat meal that week, someone commented on how selfish those two celebrity parents were to do such a thing to their children. Regrettably, and unfortunately, this well-meaning guest, like so many others, doesn’t comprehend the level of pain one must be in to make such a drastic decision to end a life.
I was devastated to hear the news — every time I think I’ve finally reached an equilibrium, I get a sucker punch in the stomach when something like this happens. I couldn’t read my beloved People magazine (yes, I will admit to that) that Shabbat; between the cover story of the two suicides and the other stories about mass shootings in schools, it was all too much. I reached out to my special group of friends, five couples who also lost children. Here’s what I wrote to them:
“… Hoping the world will wake up to the amazing prevalence of depression and finally acknowledge it as an illness like any other so that people won’t be embarrassed to acknowledge the need for help and get that help, before it’s too late! Holding you all close to my heart as I sit here next to Eric’s gravestone — I just needed to be with him a little bit this Erev Shabbat.”
And here’s some of what they wrote back:
“It’s been a horrible week. The depth and range of human suffering is immeasurable and overwhelming. This too has brought me back to agony that I have not felt in a while. I have no doubt that the way of our society, disconnected and drowning in hyperbolic social media, is spreading this infectious insidious suicide disease. Sending much love to everyone, it’s time for a gathering soon.”
“With my son’s birthday coming up next week, I was already in a bit of a malaise. I miss him so terribly. And, the recent celebrity headlines [do] not help. It is amazing when I think how far I have come. There was a time when all I could think of was him. Then, because life moves us on and there are other things we must do to just live — like pay bills, work, shop for food — and because I have other children who need me and want me to be involved in their lives, thank God, I willed myself to go on. It was the proper and right thing to do. You can only really live in the present, and if you let the past take over, then you end up having no present and no future.
“But, then there are the birthdays, the holidays, and the things that happen in the world that become so triggering. It hurts. But, like I am wont to say — the sun sets and the sun rises again and it’s a new day.”
“Eta, thanks for reaching out to all of us. And thanks to (the rest of you) for your words. They are very helpful. We all miss our children so much. All we can do is learn to work around the grief. The news this week has been brutal, and stirs up so many feelings (though they are never far from the surface).”
So what is the answer? The solution to this trend?
In August, the president signed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act (H.R. 2345) into law. It directs the Federal Communications Commission, in conjunction with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, to study the effectiveness of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and determine the feasibility of a three-digit phone number to serve as a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline.
Unfortunately, there is no single solution to suicide. In our world of people communicating via texts and social media, and forgetting about how important it is to sit down, face one another, hug one another, and really talk — not in sound bites but with lots of words — we are destined to see more deaths.
But the statistics show that “talk saves lives.” We need to encourage people to talk when they are sad, to seek help when they are feeling hopeless. And it starts with each of you. As long as our community continues to stigmatize people, young and old, with mental illness, those who need it will not seek help. Mental illness is a disease, like cancer, diabetes, and obesity, and should be treated as such. You would not condemn a person for going to a doctor for any of those medical problems, so too going to a mental health provider should be an acceptable approach and a person should be applauded for seeking help. People should not be afraid they will lose friends, their job, or loved ones if they admit to being depressed, or contemplating suicide — they should be encouraged, supported, and helped.
Wouldn’t it be nice to pick up a People magazine and just read about the weddings and births, and not about those who felt lost and forgotten, and ended their lives?
Eta Krasna Levenson of West Orange is a full-time volunteer working around issues of mental health and other disabilities. She runs a peer support group for parents of teens and young adult children with mental health challenges. She can be reached at Jeserichad@gmail.com.