I stood at a graveside in Pittsburgh this past summer and listened as an experienced pulpit rabbi eulogized a young Jewish suicide victim. In the gray storm light, the rabbi dizzily groped for words, ultimately confessing that she had no frame of reference for this kind of death. “Unless you’ve been personally touched by suicide, you can’t understand what this family is thinking and feeling,” I remember her saying. The rabbi meant well, of course, but her implicit message – suicide is so inscrutable, so mysterious, so Other – is a problem for our society.
Suicide is not a new phenomenon, in the Jewish community or the culture at large. As senior writer Suzanne Pollak reports in her cover story this week (“ ‘The pain changes your life’ ” ), two Wootton High School students have committed suicide in the past year and a third attempted to do so just last month.
Shakespeare’s young prince of Denmark contemplates suicide in his first major soliloquy in Act I, scene ii of Hamlet: O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world!
These days, Hamlet is less well-known than pop-culture figures, and, as Susan Bodnar, a clinical psychologist who teaches at Columbia University, put it to me in an interview following the death of comedian Robin Williams on Aug. 11, the loss of someone so enmeshed in the culture presents a perfect “opportunity to start a national conversation about suicide that can be healthy for individuals and society.” The first step, according to Bodnar, is treating “mental illness on par with physical illness.”
In a long interview with this paper, Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation, agreed, saying that he has come to understand depression is “as real and prevalent as other illnesses” and that “no religious community is immune from the issues that may lead to suicide, including depression.” Indeed, the latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicate that 9.1 percent of the population meets the criteria for current depression (significant symptoms for at least two weeks before the survey), and 4.1 percent meet the criteria for major depression.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, major depressive disorder is associated with high mortality; up to 15 percent of individuals with this disorder die by suicide. Lustig’s synagogue has hosted film screenings and discussions about suicide and depression, in order to “let people know we care, and to lower the barrier of entry for someone seeking to come forward, so hopefully we can help.”
In that spirit, here are some additional resources: • JSSA, the Jewish Social Service Agency serving Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia, runs a suicide support group. Inquiries: 301-816-2708; firstname.lastname@example.org. • The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, staffed 24/7, is 1-800-273-8255. • To learn more about depression, visit the National Institutes of Health’s website: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/ topics/depression/index.shtml.