Last time, we looked at the sanctity of life in Judaism and how our religion views suicide. Today, a look at some stories of anguish and at some success, too.
Please note that this column deals with suicide and may be difficult for some people to read. Also, if you have any concerns about mental health issues or halachah, please consult an expert who can help you personally.
In Canada, the suicide rate in 2015 was 10.4 people per 100,000. That compares with 12.6 in the United States and 5.4 in Israel.
Suicide remains the top cause of death in the Israel Defense Forces. In 2016, 15 soldiers took their own lives, four were killed in operations, nine in on-base accidents, seven in car accidents and six died of illness.
Although any loss of life due to suicide is tragic, the numbers are down about 50% from the previous decade.
Most cases involved IDF-issued weapons among soldier in their first year of compulsory service. One of the reasons for the decline in suicides in recent years is that soldiers’ access to weapons has been restricted. Starting in 2006, soldiers on leave longer than a weekend were prohibited to take their service weapons home to prevent them from using those weapons to commit suicide.
Another reason has been a change in attitude. “We encourage [soldiers] to talk and report this. It’s not tattling, it’s help,” said Col. Merav Kirshner, who heads the manpower planning and administration division in IDF’s personnel department.
Numbers in Israel have also fallen and to bring them down further, the country has launched a “Gatekeeper” program to train 130,000 people to help identify those at risk of suicide. According to Haaretz, “these workers will then be able to identify people with suicidal tendencies and refer them for immediate treatment. The gatekeepers are vital contact points – for example, family doctors, nurses at well-baby clinics who recognize women with severe postpartum depression, educators – who will be given the necessary tools to hold preliminary conversations and make referrals.”
Another reason that rates are lower in Israel may be religious observance. A study published in 2014 in the journal European Psychiatry suggests that religious Jewish teenagers in Israel exhibited less than half as much suicide-risk behaviour, including attempted suicide, as their secular Jewish peers. The study was conducted on six hundred Israeli Jews between the ages of 14 and 17 and the level of religiosity (ultra-Orthodox, observant or non-observant) was reported by the teens’ mothers.
What role might religious observance play? “Suicide is often about losing hope,” said Dr. Gal Shoval, a senior psychiatrist at Geha Mental Health Centre who guided the study. “We know from working with survivors of suicide – what we call ‘near misses’ – that even when they were 99 percent sure they were going to kill themselves, they still looked for hope. Jewish faith and community may provide that hope.”
Those statistics provide little comfort for Gilles and Esther Alexandre. They lost two sons to suicide during their military service. Amit Alexandre was on military service in an elite unit of the Israeli Defence Forces when he took a gun and shot himself, but his parents were told he had died in an accident while training. Assaf Banitt, who had been serving alongside Amit, said the lie was deliberate. “When we went to the funeral, the commander told us, ‘Listen. We’re not going to mention the word ‘suicide.’ It’s a religious family and no-one talks about it. They shouldn’t know – it’s a gun accident as far as anyone’s concerned.’”
Back on their kibbutz, the Alexandres were encouraged to continue the charade. “They asked us not to speak about suicide,” Esther told the BBC. “And that didn’t suit us. We said that if we think what happened was suicide, then we will talk about suicide. We didn’t want everyone outside to be talking about suicide, but for it to be forbidden to mention that word in our home.”
“It takes enough energy to deal with what has happened to us, and we have none to waste trying to keep a secret.”
The story of the deaths of Amit and Yotam (who killed himself while in yeshiva) and the fight against stigma in the army, in yeshiva and on kibbutz is told in filmmaker Banitt’s documentary, “Against Your Will.”
On October 2, 2015, Maya Gold, 15, took her life. Her death shook the Woodstock NY Jewish Congregation where 800 mourners paid their respects. Her parents, Elise Gold and Mathew Swerdloff, wrote a statement about her suicide:
“Maya made a mistake. A mistake from which there is no retreat, no undoing, no return to a time before what has been done. That is where we begin to make sense of this. [Rabbi Jonathan Kligler’s eulogy] speaks to a way forward, a way to honor Maya’s life by cherishing our own lives and families, by listening and connecting with each other and by supporting each other. Please read it, share it and find your way in the web of receiving and offering support.”
Rabbi Kliger’s eulogy is reproduced in full. Here is a short excerpt.
“We couldn’t catch this wonderful young woman in time, and now she is gone. But we adults are still here, we are still paying as close attention as we can to the rest of you, our beloved children, our hands are right here, reaching out. … When you feel overwhelmed is when you feel most alone. I’m telling you, it’s a trap! At the very moment when you need the most help, your crazy mind is telling you that you are all alone, that you are a miserable human being, and that you don’t deserve to be helped, since it is all your fault anyway. I’m here to tell you that those thoughts are a load of crap. …”
“I’m here to tell you that at precisely the moment when you feel most alone, you need to be your most courageous, and reach out for help. I’m here to tell you that if your friend is hurting themselves, get in their face. Look out for each other. Be brave. Risk losing a friend in order to help them.”
“Do not judge Maya. You were not in her shoes, and will never know what she was experiencing. Instead, open your hearts to those who are suffering, and if you can, catch them before they fall.”
Rabbi Kliger is no stranger to suicide. His own father took his life when Kliger was 24.
Next time, we will hear how a Canadian Jewish community is breaking the stigma of talking about suicide and get advice about what to say and do if you know a family touched by suicide.