Young Israel hosts discussion on suicide

BY KEREN DOUEK, ASSISTANT EDITOR

Suicidal people want to die. A good way to stop someone from committing suicide is to challenge them to do it. People who commit suicide are looking for attention, and people who talk about suicide, do not commit suicide. Black people are more likely to commit suicide than white people, marrried men are more likely to commit suicide than single men and single women are more likely than married women. Suicide is more likely to occur in busy, crowded cities, such as New York. Most people who commit suicide leave notes. People who are suicidal give no warnings. If you ask someone about suicide they may start to think it is a good idea. And heavy metal music leads to suicide.

If you are like most people, there is a good chance you thought at least one of the above myths about suicide was true. Maybe you believed them all. According to Nancy Collins, these are common myths most people have about suicide, and even Collins admitted to believing some of these myths before going to work at Life Crisis Services, where she currently serves as senior therapist.

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Another common myth surrounding suicide and mental illness, which may be particularly pervasive within the Jewish community, is the myth that the best way to deal with such issues is to not talk about them.

Lou Albert, executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, said the Jewish community is no different than the general community in the kinds of problems it deals with, “but yet we don’t talk about a lot of things that happen, and I would say that is not necessarily in our best interest.”

“Community discussions about difficult topics are always the way to go,” he said.

On Sunday, July 30, the Jewish community was invited to Young Israel for a discussion on “Suicide: The Reality, the Facts, the Help: Professional and Religious Perspectives,” moderated by Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld and with presentations by Collins, Albert and Dr. Ed Harris, a local psychologist. The discussion was supposed to take place in a meeting room at the Young Israel, but was moved to the sanctuary when it became clear there was going to be a large turnout. As one woman from the audience stated during the question portion of the evening, “We’ve had this event that has shattered our community.”

The woman was referring to the suicide of Sarah Adelman, daughter of Edward and Avril Adelman of St. Louis, on the Upper West Side of New York on July 24.

Adelman grew up in St. Louis and moved to New York after graduating from Brandeis University. She was working as a dental-office manager in Rockefeller Center.

The funeral was held at Berger Memorial Chapel on July 26.

At the discussion, Bienenfeld described Adelman as “lovely, bright and spunky,” and said she was a source of pride to her family and all of her friends, and the community.

“It is still difficult to believe that this all happened less than a week ago,” Bienenfeld said. “And we all miss her terribly, and we feel for the family.”

Bienenfeld said the Adelman family was understandably conflicted about what to say when the circumstances surrounding Sarah’s death became known, “but to their credit they soon realized that Sarah’s tragic death might be an opportunity to assist others in dealing with the psychic pain that so often leads to suicide.”

The Adelman family founded the Sarah Adelman Memorial Fund, with one of its stated missions being to support programs and initiatives to help individuals deal with psychological and social issues, including the tragedy of suicide. The fund will also support individuals in need of counseling and crisis intervention.

The Adelmans also felt the evening’s discussion was important for the community, and arranged to have the discussion taped for anyone who was not able to attend.

In speaking before the group, Collins tried to provide advice on how to help survivors who had lost someone to suicide through the difficult times ahead. She encouraged the community, above all, to be available to the family.

“A lot of times people will say, ‘I don’t know what to say,'” Collins said. “You don’t have to say anything. Just give them a hug. Tell them you love them. Tell them you care about them.” Most importantly, “Don’t avoid them.”

Harris told the group not to ask too many questions, rather to make statements. “I”m sorry to hear about your loss,'” he said, as an example. “‘I want to bring dinner.’ Give them a hug. Tell them you love them. Those kinds of things.”

Collins said to keep the questions general, such as, “‘I want to know how you are today.’ ‘Who have you talked to?’ ‘Have you eaten?'”

She said it is also important to try to get survivors to talk.

“Often people say, ‘Nobody says my son’s name, I just want to hear his name.’ Don’t act like the person has never had a life, because they have, and the family wants to hear about them, even if they cry. They are going to be crying anyway. How can they not cry? They just lost a child, they are going to cry,” she said.

Collins also tried to give the group a glimpse into what is going on inside the mind of someone who is suicidal. She spoke of a twelve year old boy who said he felt like he was in a deep ditch, and while he knew there were people around him reaching out for him, he also knew that nobody could reach down far enough to pull him out. She said another girl spoke of a black cloud that followed her everywhere, and said no light ever came into her life.

Collins said it is important to understand that with people who are suicidal, “It is not so much that they want to die, but that they want to escape the pain they are in.”

Collins said that while frequently with suicides there is a stress event that leads to the suicide, it is not that event alone that caused the suicide. She described the stress event as the last drop in a full cup of water that makes the cup overflow.

Collins listed some risk factors for suicide — such as previous attempts, other instances of suicide in the family, self-mutilation, drug and alcohol abuse, and depression; and symptoms of depression — such as marked changes in behavior, self-isolation, hopelessness and helplessness.

She also discussed suicidal warning signs, such as talking, writing or making jokes about suicide, giving away prized possessions, or making any kind of final arrangements, risk-taking behavior, or a distorted thought process about themselves and their self-worth.

But Collins emphasized, “Even when you know every single cause in the world, even if you know every single warning sign in the world, even if you are seeing the best psychologist or the best psychiatrist in the world, suicide still happens, so nobody is to blame. The family is not to blame. This is something that happens.”

Collins advised people to take all threats seriously, and to ask someone directly if you think they may be having suicidal thoughts.

“Suicide is a very hard word to say,” she said. “But generally, if you ask people who are suicidal, they will be glad that you asked.”

Collins said to acknowledge the person’s feelings, rather than telling them their feelings are incorrect, or that they have everything to live for. Ask if they have a plan. Ask who is the person who should be notified of what they are dealing with. Make them promise to hold on, because you are going to get them all of the help they need. And then get help.

The members of the panel also emphasized the importance of knowing when you need help yourself, and taking the appropriate steps to get that help.

When do you know you need help?

“When you feel that you can’t stop the pain,” Collins said. “When you are having trouble thinking clearly. When you are having trouble with decision making. When you are having trouble sleeping or eating. If you feel so sad that you can’t make it go away. When things seem to be just not worthwhile. When you can’t get someone’s attention who needs to know you are having thoughts of suicide, and you can’t seem to get your life back in control.”

Albert said it is often true that “many of us much more prefer to be the ones giving help … It is a lot harder though to be the one to accept help.”

“If there is one thing that I have learned,” he said, “it is that every single one of us at different times in our lives has the opportunity to give help, but also has the need to receive help.”

Albert spoke about the counseling services which are available at JFCS for the community and for anyone who needs help, regardless of whether or not they can afford to pay for such services, and Collins noted there are many crisis hotlines and other resources available as well.

Harris said 150 years ago in Europe we would bring our “spiritual concerns, our emotional concerns, and sometimes our medical concerns to the rabbi.”

“If we did that today,” he said, “Rabbi Bienenfeld, as hard as he works, would be working way more, and we don’t want that … So I encourage you, if you are feeling at all any of the things Nancy spoke about, or you think that someone you love or that is close to is experiencing anything like this, please go to your rabbi and get some resources … The thing that you could do that is the least healthy is to keep this stuff to yourself.”

Bienenfeld went further to say that it is one’s Jewish obligation to seek help.

“We are obligated to safeguard our souls,” Bienenfeld said. “You are not allowed to put your life in jeopardy. You are not allowed to do things to your physical body where you are going to make yourself unhealthy, for sure … And someone who abuses their body consciously is in violation of halachic Torah … There should not be a stigma attached to saying I am having some issues and I need to speak to a professional. Not only should there not be a stigma, it is a mitzvah to do so.”

And while Bienenfeld acknowledged that committing suicide is committing an act of murder on one’s self and is clearly forbidden in Judaism, he also spoke about the language surrounding suicide, which describes a deliberate act as “destroying yourself where you are rationally aware of what you are doing,” he explained, “and where it is a cool decision, where a person simply says, ‘I think I just don’t want to live anymore.’ It is not being driven by depression. It is not being driven by psychic or physical pain.”

Bienenfeld said that that is not the case with most suicides. He said most contemporary sources conclude that “for all intents and purposes, at least to the best of my knowledge … 99% of the cases of what technically in the secular world would be considered suicide are halachically not blatant suicides because in the vast majority of these cases what has driven the person to do this is not ‘lada’at, it is not something the person as control over.”

The panelists stressed the importance of the community creating open dialogue surrounding suicide, and promoting education within the community.

Heavy metal music is symptomatic of suicide, but does not cause someone who is not thinking of suicide to begin to entertain such thoughts. Asking someone who is not considering suicide if they are considering suicide will not give them the idea to commit such an act. Challenging someone to commit suicide in hopes of dissuading them from doing so is a terrible idea. Many times, people who commit suicide do give warning signs, and most people who commit suicide have said something to somebody to hint to their intensions. Only approximately 20% of people who commit suicide ever leave a note, and their notes do not generally explain why they have done what they have done. In fact, white people are more likely to commit suicide than black people, married men are less likely to commit suicide than single men and single women are less likely than married women. Suicide is more likely to occur in remote areas, where there are less resources available. People who commit suicide are not looking for attention, but need all of the attention they can get.

And no, suicidal people do not want to die.

Donations to the Sarah Adelman Memorial Fund can be sent to the Young Israel at 8101 Delmar Blvd.

Keren Douek is an assistant editor and can be reached at [email protected]