By Miriam Libove
During the JWFNY “Spotlight on Adolescent Girls’ Mental Health” event on September 14th, Joanne Harpel, a noted expert in suicide prevention and response, charged the Jewish community with reframing the way we view suicide and the emotional turmoil that precipitates it.
Joanne explained that all too often, people who are contemplating suicide, especially adolescent girls, are afraid to talk about their depression and get the help they need due to an expectation of being judged. Additionally, fear of social stigma, or worse yet, blame, often keeps bereaved families from getting the support they would have received if a loss had occurred by other means.
Joanne challenged the Jewish community to take action to counteract attitudes that perpetuate this pattern. She asserted an important way to open up the conversation about suicide is to encourage clergy and other Jewish leaders to recognize suicide as resulting from mental illness, a legitimate medical condition. Positioning depression alongside other potentially fatal maladies lessons the social stigma, and makes it safe for people who are suffering to ask for the help they need.
Just as Joanne stressed that suicide should be acknowledged as resulting from an illness, I was reminded of another speaker I heard who directed us to use the words, “died by suicide” instead of “committed” suicide. The word, “committed,” has connotations of committing a crime or a sin, and thus reinforces outdated beliefs that suggest that suicide is a moral issue and a cause for disgrace for the family. By contrast, the term, “died by suicide” is neutral and makes it easier to recognize it as originating from an illness no less respectable than cancer.
Joanne’s next recommendation – that we bring this understanding into public prayer – was a logical extension. As Judaism already has a prayer for healing, the Mi Shebeirach, it would make sense for rabbis to encourage congregants to name people who are suffering from mental illness during the Torah service when the Mi Shebeirach is recited.
This notion is especially compelling when one considers the literal meaning of the words of the prayer. The Mi Shebeirach asks for “refuat ha nefesh,” (a healing of soul) and “refuat haguf,” (a healing of body). By citing more than just physiological systems, the prayer offers a more comprehensive view of health. The prayer also speaks of a “refuah shleyma,” (complete healing). This particularly resonates because the word “shelyma” is related to the word, “shalom,” typically translated as “peace,” and its root means “wholeness.” It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to translate “refuah shleyma,” as “a healing of wholeness and peace.” And what is healing from despair, if not a feeling of being at peace?
As we move into the season of reflection, perhaps we can bring the topic of mental illness into our conversations and prayers. My prayer for the new year is that we are all filled with a sense of wholeness and peace. Shanah tovah.
For more about the language of suicide, check out http://www.speakingofsuicide.com/2013/04/13/language/. What alternatives to the words “committed suicide” would you suggest? Please share your suggestions in the comments section below.