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New Year, New Commitment to Preserve Life

This year, 2018, National Suicide Prevention Week is the same week as Rosh Hashanah, and World Suicide Prevention Day is the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 10.

How appropriate that as we begin a new Jewish year, we think about how to preserve life—both in our Tefillot (our prayers) and in our hearts. And maybe it’s time to not only think (and pray) about how we can preserve our own life, which is what so much of the Tefillot are about, but also about preserving other lives as well.

It has been two and a half years since our family lost our beloved Eric, z”l, to this horrible epidemic. And as we have seen in the news, suicide affects everyone, from all walks of life.

This past Spring, two well-known celebrities, seemingly with everything going for them, took their lives. Because people who know me know about our son Eric, so many people reached out to me, both in support and with questions about how and why someone who seemingly has so much in their lives, and so much too offer, could even consider suicide, let alone do so.

At our Shabbat meal that week, someone commented on how selfish those two celebrities (parents) were to do such a thing to their children. Regrettably and unfortunately, however, this well-meaning guest, like so many others, just doesn’t comprehend the level of pain one must be in to make such a drastic decision to end their life.

I myself was devastated to hear the news—every time I think I’ve finally reached an equilibrium, I get a sucker punch in the stomach when something like this happens. Trying to read my beloved People magazine that Shabbat (yes, I will admit to that), I couldn’t—between the cover story of the two suicides, and the other stories about mass shootings in schools, it was all too much. That week, I reached out to my special group of friends, five couples who also lost their own children around Eric’s age, either just before or after our loss. Here’s what I wrote to them:

“Just reaching out to my special friends. It’s been a rough couple of days with this week’s latest 2 suicides, with the CDC confirming what we always felt, that suicide has gone up by 25% since 1999 (boy, it takes them a long time to figure out those stats!), and with my doing an AFSP presentation called “Talk Saves Lives” to Jewish Family Service of Clifton-Passaic (and running my support group for parents with teens and adults with mental illness). Thinking of the pain these young (our age!) people must have been in, and the consequences of their actions on their families, especially their young children!

“Hoping the world will wake up to the amazing prevalence of depression and finally acknowledge it as an illness like any other—so that people won’t be embarrassed to acknowledge the need for help and get that help, before it’s too late!

“Holding you all close to my heart as I sit here next to Eric’s gravestone—I just needed to be with him a little bit this Erev Shabbat.”

And here’s some of what they wrote back:

“Thank you for proactively reaching out. It’s been a horrible week. The depth and range of human suffering is immeasurable and overwhelming. This too has brought me back to agony that I have not felt in a while. I have no doubt that the way of our society, disconnected and drowning in hyperbolic social media, is spreading this infectious insidious suicide disease. Sending much love to everyone, it’s time for a gathering soon”

“With my son’s birthday coming up next week, I was already in a bit of a malaise. I miss him so terribly. And, the recent celebrity headlines does not help. It is amazing when I think how far I have come. There was a time when all I could think of was him. Then, because life moves us on and there are other things we must do to just live—like pay bills, work, shop for food—and because I have other children who need me and want me to be involved in their lives, thank God, I willed myself to go on. It was the proper and right thing to do. You can only really live in the present, and if you let the past take over, then you end up having no present and no future.

But, then there are the birthdays, the holidays, and the things that happen in the world that become so triggering. It hurts. But, like I am wont to say—the sun sets and the sun rises again and it’s a new day.

Love and hugs to all.”

“Eta, thanks for reaching out to all of us. And thanks to (the rest of you) for your words. They are very helpful. We all miss our children so much. All we can do is learn to work around the grief. The news this week has been brutal, and stirs up so many feelings (though they are never far from the surface).”

So what is the answer? The solution to this trend?

The statistics in New Jersey alone are staggering—the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) put out recent statistics for New Jersey. Suicide is the 14th leading cause of death in New Jersey. It is third for ages 15-24, fourth for ages 25-54, 10th for ages 55-64 and the 19th for ages 65 and older. On average, one person dies by suicide every 13 hours in our state; more than twice as many people die by suicide in New Jersey annually than by homicide.

This past August 14, the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act (H.R. 2345)—which passed by a vote of 379-1 in the House of Representatives and by unanimous consent in the Senate —was signed into law by the President of the United States. H.R. 2345 directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in conjunction with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs, to study the current effectiveness of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and determine the feasibility of utilizing a three-digit phone number for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system.

Unfortunately, there is no one good answer. In our world of social media, of people communicating by texts and computers, and forgetting about how important it is to sit down, face one another, hug one another and really talk, not in sound bites but with lots of words, we are destined to see more of this. But the statistics are there, talk saves lives. We need to encourage people to talk when they are sad, to seek help when they are feeling hopeless. And it starts with each of you. As long as our community continues to stigmatize people with mental illness, young and old, they will not seek help. Mental illness is a disease, like cancer, like diabetes, like obesity, and should be treated as such. You would not condemn a person for going to a doctor for any of those “medical” problems—so too going to a mental health worker should be an acceptable approach, and a person applauded for seeking help. People should not be afraid they will lose friends, lose their job, their loved ones if they admit they are depressed, or contemplating suicide—they should be encouraged and supported, and helped.

Because, wouldn’t it be nice to pick up a People magazine and just read about the weddings and the births, and not who else felt lost and forgotten, and ended their life!

By Eta Levenson


Eta Krasna Levenson is a clinical social worker who lives in West Orange. She can be reached at [email protected].

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