Let’s talk responsibly about suicide

Human lives are at stake because of irresponsibility. Because suicide is a disease. And it’s contagious.

The Chiba Community Mental Health Clinic – care for the ulta- Orthodox community (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Chiba Community Mental Health Clinic – care for the ulta- Orthodox community
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I have written before about the tendency in some circles to take a tragic event or series of events and try to show a trend that reflects poorly on religious Jews. There has been a wave of people going public in recent years with memoirs about their rebellion against religious life and the unfortunate misery they endured while forced to adhere to a lifestyle they did not value.
And so, the Jewish and secular media are already on the lookout for continuation or elevation of the concept that the more strictly Orthodox a Jew grows up, the more likely he or she is to be dysfunctional and unhappy, unless they are fortunate enough to escape and write a bestseller about it.
Do not misunderstand me; as president of Our Place, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter and counseling for troubled youth, I will not for a moment dismiss the urgent need for such people to find their comfort level and be true to who they are at heart.
It has been one of my life’s missions to help individuals on that path find peace. I have seen far too many tragic outcomes when drugs and conflict take hold and hope is extinguished, along with a young life that held enormous value and promise.
But perspective is important, and perspective is very elusive when it comes to the media. One life, one single precious life that is snuffed out because suicide seemed the only remedy, is 1,000 times too high a price to pay. And it is not one life we’re talking about here, it is many.
But in recent months, following a few high-profile suicides, numbers have been thrown around that strain credibility and present a far more frightening picture than what I and others know actually exists. I do not believe that “seventy or more” religious Jews have committed suicide since Rosh Hashana, as some have recently asserted in the media. This fits into the narrative of an increasingly dysfunctional community that some would like to see, but it is at odds with the evidence. I have pressed one individual who was linked to that figure in a media report, and he assured me it did not come from him.
What’s at stake here is not just pride and accuracy and our indignation at media mistreatment.
Human lives are at stake because of this irresponsible talk. Because suicide is a disease. And it’s contagious.
Just as unstable people sometimes copy crimes they see on TV, so can troubled individuals be encouraged to commit suicide when they see the level of attention it draws in the aftermath. One suicide can beget another; dozens of fabricated suicides may have terrible consequences.
Perhaps some of those using this “70 or more” figure are including drug overdoses in their total. In many cases, perhaps most, such deaths are unintentional, a result of unexpectedly potent drugs or inexperience with dosages. In many cases that I know of, such people, while surely troubled enough to be drawn to drugs, had no intention to end their lives.
Drug abuse can be cured, the toll of an overdose reversed. Suicide is irrevocable.
The Centers for Disease Control have recognized copycat suicides as a dangerous phenomenon as far back as 1989, when it held a workshop to address the issue of “media-related suicide contagion.”
Experts agree that media coverage in these cases can be beneficial to the public if it helps publicize the availability of programs such as hotlines, prevention and support groups, such as Our Place or The Living Room. But it can be detrimental and promote copycats if the coverage focuses on the method of suicide, the outpouring of love for the deceased at the funeral or memorial service and all the positive attributes of the deceased without also mentioning that the person was deeply troubled.
The public attachment of suicide to the idea of “escaping” a religious community is also highly dangerous, especially if it is depicted as a larger phenomenon than it actually is, with a percentage that is higher than suicide rate in the general population, which according to the American Society for Suicide Prevention is 12.93 per every 100,000 people. With about 600,000 Orthodox Jews in the New York Tristate area, 70-plus suicides would amount to more than 15 people per 100,000.
I would never ask the professional media to stifle actual news of a tragedy, nor should anyone expect this. What I would ask for is more of the kind of skepticism we see when politicians or corporate leaders make public statements that can often be ad hoc, inflated or self serving.
Let’s have a smart dialogue about suicide that leaves behind hurtful and dangerous narratives and focuses where it counts most – extending a compassionate hand to those who need one.
The writer is a frequent commentator on political and social services matters.
He is the treasurer for the American Jewish Congress, cofounder of Magenu.org and president for Our Place, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter and counseling for troubled Jewish youth.
Follow on Twitter: @E_Verschleiser