Gila was an outgoing and well-liked 18-year-old young woman. The night before dying by suicide, on December 19, 2019, she bought a bag of candies to give to those looking sad in the Old City of Jerusalem.
“She had an amazing ability not to see things judgmentally,” said her father, Rabbi Shalom Hammer. “She saw more than just what’s external. She saw a soul.”
Gila organized a group of friends to build a sukkah for a man with broken legs. Gila was the only one calling after the holiday to see if he needed help taking down the sukkah. She then did it herself.
Rabbi Shalom Hammer started “Gila’s Way” in her memory to break the stigma and educate the Orthodox community about suicide and mental health. He also teaches soldiers and potential converts in the Israel Defense Forces about Judaism.
Every year in Israel, more than 650 people die by suicide and over 6,000 people attempt to do so. Their religion or ethnicity is unknown, said Rabbi Hammer.
Every 16 hours, someone dies from suicide in New York City. In 2020, 542 died, according to the most recent posting by New York City’s Department of Health.
The stigma and reluctance to talk about suicide and mental health in the Orthodox community may be due to the immense pressure to achieve. The Jewish community “so aspires to such high goals, and always had kind of like a high standard of excellence,” said Rabbi Hammer.
“There’s a lot of judgment, based on externals and how people appear, how they achieve, or how intelligent they seem, or what they’re accomplishing.” “Not everyone can perform or be as goal-orientated as everyone else.”
Orthodox Judaism is also very family-orientated, Rabbi Hammer said. Having mental health issues can be a barrier in getting married for both the person and family members.
Judaism has a commandment to look over one’s nefesh (soul) – that “refers to our entire persona.” There is also no greater value in Judaism, and in other religions, than preserving life, said Rabbi Hammer.
Signs of suicide are a person having “a huge amount of guilt. They shoulder a tremendous amount of responsibility.” They feel like a burden on one’s parents or family, sleep too much or too little, abuse substances, or have a “lack of desire to be within a framework.” All can be cries for help.
Rabbi Hammer believes most people don’t want to die. “They’re saying in different ways, ‘Help me. Get me to a better place. I don’t know how to rid myself of this pain.’”
When providing comfort to those who lost a loved one, “Allow them to grieve in their own way. Some people might want to talk about it, others not. The rule of grieving is to get through the next day. Whatever gets you through the day, you do.”
“Every griever should find the foundation for their coping mechanism,” said Rabbi Hammer. For some, it is talking with friends or family, having therapy, taking up a sport, or getting involved in causes.
Suicide was among the ten leading causes of death in the United States in 2020 among persons aged 10-64 years, and the second leading cause of death among children and adolescents aged 10-14, and young adults, 25-34 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC).
Middle-aged white adults commit suicide more than any other demographic, 69.68% of all suicide deaths in 2020, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Religious communities were traditionally resistant to the field of psychology. Sigmund Freud and early psychoanalysis looked upon religion negatively. That has evolved. Psychoanalysis is also not the main treatment used today, said Dr. Victor Schwartz, a licensed psychiatrist who was Director of the Student Counseling Service and then Dean of Students at Yeshiva University.
A person experiencing emotional difficulties might be asked to pray or do religious duties better instead of seeking professional help. People with anxiety or depression might seem to suggest that they “have a sort of lack of faith,” said Dr. Schwartz.
“Those attitudes have really shifted over the last 30 years or so.” Communities recognize now that “there are mental health problems that need treatment,” said Dr. Schwartz.
An Orthodox person, wishing to be anonymous, lost a family member to suicide but didn’t know where to turn? Comfort came from rabbis who protected their confidentiality from the community.
A person grieving a suicide might subconsciously or consciously wonder if people think less of them. Being there for the person is more important than words. “It tells that we are with them and we accept them,” said Rabbi Yossi Mendelson of Congregation Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills and a Chaplain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital of Queens.
The Orthodox community is close-knit, so reputation is important, which might prevent people from seeking help. Central Queens needs more mental health services like in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway, said Rabbi Mendelson.
We are asked to serve G-d with joy, so “Depression shouldn’t go untreated,” said Rabbi Mendelson. People with depression have the highest risk of suicide, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Relationship breakups, mental illness, financial, and/or legal problems are risk factors, said Stuart Katz, a National Trainer of Mental Health First Aid. Katz has seen a 50% increase in people reaching out to the Suicide Crisis Text Line, 741741, where he volunteers 50 hours a week.
“Impulsive or aggressive tendencies, we see that more in women,” said Katz. Isolation because of COVID and cyberbullying are recent causes. Childhood trauma is likely the number one risk factor being studied now, said Katz.
Social stigma, more than religious barriers, is why the Orthodox don’t reach out for help, said Katz. Men don’t think it’s manly. A psychiatric label can be stigmatizing.
About 99.9% of all people attempting suicide don’t want to die. They attempt suicide “if they feel they just can’t bear the physical pain anymore.” Talking about suicide doesn’t encourage the person, it prevents it, said Katz.
People may feel guilt for not preventing a person’s suicide. Did the person feel unloved or under-loved? Anger or resentment is sometimes felt. It is called “dying by suicide” because it is an illness the person didn’t survive, just like any other illness, said Katz.
Talking about suicide, abuse, and mental health is less of a stigma in the Orthodox community, and the general public, than 20 years ago. “It’s people realizing that it’s going on in their midst. It’s affecting people close to them,” said Efrem Epstein, who started Elijah’s Journey in 2009 for mental health advocacy and suicide prevention in the Jewish community.
Epstein’s tips for a shiv’ah visit and providing comfort include:
Never ask about the circumstances of the suicide. Focus on the life of the person who passed.
Avoid words like, “You did everything you could,” or “There was nothing that could have been done,” or “Did you have any idea that this would happen?” It places a lot of responsibility on the mourner.
Listening is most important. Sometimes it’s better not to speak.
Give the person the space with how he or she wants to be supported. Keep in touch after the shiv’ah.
Like the Biblical Job, who was not comforted by his friends despite their good intentions, people having a death by suicide needs “someone to listen and validate our feelings and experience,” said Efrem Epstein and Miriam Ament in, “What Job Can Teach Us About Coping with Mental Health Crises,” on the My Jewish Learning website.
No Shame on You helps people, families, and friends in the Orthodox community and beyond find support, educate, and save lives.
Save.org has a grief packet and support groups.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-8255, Text 741741, afsp.org. They also provide support to survivors of suicide loss and those affected by suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255. Starting July 16, 2022, just dial, 9889.
Amudim serves people in times of crisis, e.g., addiction, abuse, etc. 646-517-0221, amudim.org.
Refaenu.org provides the Jewish community with education and support for those affected by depression, bipolar disorder, and other behavioral health issues.
A psychiatric unit is available for Orthodox patients at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester Hospital in White Plains.
Rabbi Hammer has given more than 100 presentations of “Gila’s Way” in Israel, the United States, South Africa, and England. To find out more, or to contact him, go to www.rabbihammer.com.
By David Schneier