Editor’s Notebook

Confronting suicide

2014-09-29 21:05:34

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; contactus@jssa.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.

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The resilience debate

2014-09-17 13:31:50

Resilience can be taught. That was the hopeful message Michele Borba, the educational psychologist, author and Dr. Oz Show contributor brought to a packed auditorium at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital (JPDS-NC) Sunday night.

Borba was the keynote speaker of the school’s first annual Ari Zymelman lecture on parenting. She is an adherent of the positive psychology movement led by Martin Seligman, a Jewish professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a former head of the American Psychological Association.

And she is a star – a telegenic, confident, eloquent and funny speaker who connects with audiences.

But is she right?

What Borba did not tell the JPDS audience – and should have – is that resilience is a controversial field. It emerged as a major theoretical and research topic as recently as the 1980s, and since then it has generated a great deal of dispute and confusion. Bright minds cannot even seem to agree on a working definition of the term.

Some scholars say resilience is the absence of psychopathology. Other experts, like George A. Bonanno, Columbia University professor of clinical psychology, say it takes more than avoiding mental illness to be resilient. Bonanno defines resilience as a life trajectory, “a relatively stable pattern of healthy functioning coupled with the enduring capacity for positive emotion and generative experiences.” In other words, a resilient person, despite day-to-day fluctuations, can love and work.

Borba agrees, defining resilience Sunday as the “emotional equip[ment] to face challenges and bounce back from setbacks.” She argues that if parents give their children 1) unconditional love and acceptance; 2) a structured, nonpermissive environment; and 3) the opportunities to be listened and heard, that they can “plant the seeds of self-esteem” that will enable children to “regulate intense feelings and to manage difficult situations.”

Self-esteem, optimism and hope are the keys to resilience, according to Borba. Fair enough. But Borba went a huge step further Sunday, claiming that these traits are “all teachable.” That surprised me. Rarely do scientists make such bold, unreserved pronouncements.

One of the most respected researchers in Borba’s field, Frank Putnam, M.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, while acknowledging that resiliency can be “enhanced” by personality traits such as “optimism, high I.Q., special talents and physical attractiveness,” argues that these traits are largely accidents of birth and thus “not very modifiable.” In Putnam’s words, therefore, resiliency “is largely a myth.”

Last summer, Putnam and his colleagues at UNC published a paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Traumatic Stress Studies showing that although people are not at significant risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder or other serious mental illness after experiencing one major childhood adversity (physical abuse or sexual abuse, parental neglect, witnessing domestic violence, among them), the odds of doing so skyrocket after two or more adversities. Putnam’s data suggest that at around three or four major childhood adversities, “most people crumble.”

Putnam’s advice: Precisely because resilience cannot be taught, society’s focus should be on prevention.

As I sit here today, I cannot say which of these experts is correct. Resilience could be a learned behavior, as Borba argues, or it could simply be a numbers game – “a threshold” – as Putnam contends.

But the notions that children should be raised with love, structure, opportunities to be heard and guarded, to the extent possible, from major trauma – who could disagree with that?

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Portrait of a lonely artist

2014-08-27 14:47:41
Brynn O’Malley and Claybourne Elder perform in Sunday in the Park with George.  Below: The colorful cast of Sunday in the Park with George are shown onstage. Photos courtesy of Signature Theatre

Brynn O’Malley and Claybourne Elder perform in Sunday in the Park with George.
Below: The colorful cast of Sunday in the Park with George are shown onstage.
Photos courtesy of Signature Theatre

Sunday in the Park with George, by Jewish lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine, is a portrait of a lonely artist, punctuated with a pointillist score. Were you expecting a cheerier plot perhaps? Or more hummable music? Sondheim, who grew up next door to Oscar Hammerstein II but never believed in his mentor’s vision of a “bright, golden haze on the meadow,” has been trying since at least 1970, with Company, to change the tune, tone, shape and substance of the American musical, as critic Guy Flatley once put it.

Sondheim’s revolution was complete with Sunday, which was snubbed at the 1984 Tony Awards (honored only for best scenic design and lighting), but went on the following year to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, only one of eight musicals ever to do so. In Sunday, Sondheim’s titular character, the French painter George Seurat, is constructing his pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday afternoon on the island of la Grand Jatte,” which still hangs today in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is “bizarre, fixed, cold,” in his concentration, complains his lover and model, the aptly named Dot, a role Bernadette Peters originated and played here with no less warmth and wit by Brynn O’Malley.

Even as the giant canvass takes shape on stage (thanks to Daniel Conway’s clever staging and Jennifer Schriever’s neo-impressionist, blue-purple-yellow-red lighting design), George and Dot’s relationship is dissolving. “You will live forever in this painting,” he tries to reassure her, but being immortalized in his masterpiece is not the kind of love she needs – earthbound and tangible. After giving birth to his daughter, Marie, Dot marries a local baker and sets sail for America, leaving George alone in his studio to ponder: “How you have to finish the hat/How you watch the rest of the world/From a window/While you finish the hat.”

In a play about disconnection from other human beings in the service of creating art, “Finishing the Hat,” stands out as an intensely personal song, and I cannot help but think of Sondheim himself when I hear it, particularly the verse about “How it feels when voices that come/Through the window, go/Until they distance and die/Until there’s nothing but sky/And how you’re always turning back too late/From the grass or the stick/Or the dog or the light.” Jerry Herman, in his 1984 Tony Award acceptance speech for Cage aux Folles declared that the “simple, hummable tune” was still alive on Broadway, a snipe at Sondheim, who sought in Sunday to give musical theater audiences something more than a comedy of errors, a kick line, a falling chandelier or a jukebox score.

You may not leave Sunday humming or dancing, but its characters – with all their intelligence, humor and pathos – will linger in your mind, and “On an island in the river/On an ordinary Sunday/ Forever.” n Sunday in the Park with George is onstage at the Signature Theatre through Sept. 21, in the MAX Theatre, Shirlington. Tickets start at $40.

Brynn O’Malley and Claybourne Elder perform in Sunday in the Park with George. 
Below: The colorful cast of Sunday in the Park with George are shown onstage.
Photos courtesy of Signature Theatre
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On the media, cognitive dissonance and ignorance

2014-08-13 14:15:05

Maureen Dowd turned her trademark snark on Brandeis University, Haverford College and Rutgers University when, in a May 17 column for The New York Times, she reported how those institutions of higher learning disinvited their commencement speakers due to protests from students opposed to hearing from them.

In particular, Dowd lamented Rutgers’ snub of Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state. “[T]he students shouldn’t have jumped the gun,” Dowd argued. “After all, there was always a chance, a small one, admittedly, but a chance, that Condi Rice would have looked into her soul and told the story of what happens when you succumb to the temptation to sell it. “And that, dear graduates, family and friends, faculty and honored guests, would have been the most amazing and instructive commencement speech of all time.”

I agree with Dowd. I cannot pinpoint when this phenomenon began, this stubborn refusal to listen to people with opposing points of view. In American political and social life, we are becoming increasingly polarized and shrill in our dialogue.

Moderates are retiring from elected office en masse, or being voted out. Americans are losing their appetite for a varied news diet, too, as evidenced by the latest cable news ratings.

As reported by Mediabistro, the partisan Fox News Channel (Right) and MSNBC (Left) currently rank #1 and #2 in prime time; the comparatively moderate CNN trails a distant third. So it did not surprise me that I received emails from subscribers this week urging me to pull WJW to the Left and Right, and to purge the editorial pages of viewpoints they do not share.

This would not only compromise our mission to engage the entire Jewish community, a diverse group, but also, I believe, make us all dumber. There is science to back up my belief. According to a 2012 study by Fairleigh Dickinson University, exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people’s knowledge of current events.

This nationwide survey confirms initial findings presented in a similar 2011 survey. In the FDU study, 1,185 respondents nationwide were asked about what news sources they consumed in the past week and then were asked a variety of questions about current political and economic events in the U.S. and abroad.

On average, people were able to answer correctly 1.8 of 4 questions about international news, and 1.6 of 5 questions about domestic affairs. Someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a significantly worse figure than if they had reported watching no media at all. Incredible, right? I was asked this week what news source – singular – I read to understand the situation in Gaza. I replied that, with respect to Gaza and all other important topics, I am a news omnivore (starting with WJW, of course).

Psychologists have a word for people who cannot stomach such variety. “Cognitive dissonance” is defined as: “The feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs.”

My advice: always be open to hearing opposing points of view. If your convictions are firmly rooted in logic, hearing a contrary point of view should not shake your belief in your opinions or in yourself. And if it does, so be it. Edward Said was the commencement speaker at my college graduation, from Haverford. Said, the famous Palestinian activist and literary scholar, was no threat to my beliefs about Israel.

And if he had said something slanderous or dunderheaded about the Jewish state, I would have been grateful for the chance to be among the first to listen and respond.

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Let slip the dogs of war

2014-08-06 13:18:52

My mother, Linda, woke up last week to the sight of blood – on her bedroom floor, in the hallways of her house in Pittsburgh and on the stairs. Her two year-old Havanese, Sasha, was nowhere to be found.

Following the trail of blood to my stepfather’s study, she found Sasha, still bleeding, the result of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, an acute disorder that plagues small and toy breeds like the
Havanese. He survived after several days of treatment in a veterinary hospital and is home resting comfortably, I am pleased to report.

Stress, anxiety, and hyperactivity are believed to be contributing factors in many cases of canine hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, I have since learned.

But Sasha, stressed and anxious? How could this be? Sasha is possibly the most loved and pampered pooch on the planet. He has his own life vest for swimming, sleeps in the cushy center of my mother and stepfather’s bed and owns more toys than my brother or I did as children – combined. Nevertheless, it would appear that Sasha is stressed out about something (the new neighbors and their dogs?).

Before Sasha joined my family, I did not realize that dogs experienced emotions, especially ones as characteristically human as anxiety. But it is impossible now for me to think of him as a merely instinctual being, a creature of raw intelligence. I have seen him be surprised, curious, grateful, loving, suspicious, mischievous, manipulative and even jealous.

I do not believe I am imagining all this, or suffering from what biologists call “vertebrate bias.” Indeed, a new study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, just published in the
online peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, found that dogs displayed jealous behavior when their owners paid attention to an animatronic stuffed dog that barked, whined and wagged its tail. Sasha does the same thing when any one of us gets too cozy with the lifelike, stuffed dog we bought for him.

Given what I now believe I know about animals, I am appalled by the Palestinians’ use of donkeys as unwitting suicide bombers in their terrorist campaign against Israel, a fact we reported in WJW back on July 23 (“Hamas terror donkey draws PETA attack”). On July 18, Israel Defense Forces in the Rafah area noticed a donkey approaching, and opened fire, causing the explosives to detonate.

“They used this donkey as a human shield, or an animal shield, if you like,” Major Arye Shalicar, an army spokesman, told London’s The Telegraph. “Anything, an animal or an international building, that can help make use of innocent people or international [citizens], they will use it. We see it time and again.”

This wasn’t the first time the Palestinians abused animals this way. During the Second Intifada in 2003, a Palestinian terrorist strapped a bomb to a donkey and then exploded it remotely near Gush Etzion.

As we go to press tonight, a cease-fire agreement has been reached between
Israel and Hamas. I hope that it holds. But if Hamas once again strikes up its terror campaign, I pray that no innocent lives are lost – human, equine, canine or otherwise.

If I possess a soul, I am quite certain that Sasha, and other animals, do, too.

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