By Rabbi Zalman Abraham
“Suicide is our most preventable form of death,” the US Surgeon General said in 2001.
In recent months, I’ve had the privilege to work with some amazing people on a youth suicide prevention initiative on behalf of The Wellness Institute, a new division of The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI).
Our goal is to save lives by training youth leaders, educators, parents, and shluchim to become mental health first responders and suicide gatekeepers in their communities and provide them with resilience-building Torah educational materials to engage the youth groups in discussion about this vital subject to help them make sense of their inner struggle and develop healthy self-esteem.
JLI works closely with leading experts in suicide prevention, including the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, and S. Lukes Hospital Network.
In the course of doing research for the program, I learned that the key to preventing suicide is more in the hands of us laypeople than it is in the hands of professionals.
The average person is not a licensed therapist or counselor to offer treatment, but everyone can help save a person from suicide by being there for them, providing hope, and helping them get professional help.
People tend to believe that suicide is unstoppable, that intervening will only make things worse, and that only experts should get involved. The truth is if people get the help they need they will probably never be suicidal again. Asking them directly and compassionately about suicidal intent, lowers their anxiety, opens up communication, and lowers the risk of an impulsive act. This means that everyone can prevent suicide.
Here’s what you can do. Listen and look out for what people around you are saying, what they are doing, and what’s going on in their lives. Take the following warning signs seriously:
“I wish I were dead.” “I’m tired of life, I just can’t go on.” “My family would be better off without me.” “Pretty soon you won’t have to worry about me.” —any comment that suggests that they are considering ending their lives.
Previous suicide attempts. Acquiring a gun or stockpiling pills. Co-occurring depression, moodiness, hopelessness. Putting their personal affairs in order. Giving away prized possessions. Suddenly becoming very religious or completely disinterested in religion. Substance abuse or relapse after a period of recovery. Unexplained anger, aggression, and irritability.
Fired from a job or expelled from school. Forced to move. Lost a major relationship. Lost a spouse, child, or friend (especially by suicide). Diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness. Sudden loss of freedom or fear of punishment. Anticipated loss of financial security. Loss of a beloved therapist, counselor, or teacher. Fear of becoming a burden to others.
Once you have identified a problem, here is what you can do about it:
Step 1. If you suspect suicidal thoughts, ask them directly about it: “When people are as upset as you seem to be, they sometimes wish they were dead. I’m wondering if you’re feeling that way too?” “You look pretty miserable, I wonder if you’re thinking about suicide?” “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
How you make them feel is key to getting them to open up to you. Be supportive. Do not be concerned that this will plant ideas in their head, it won’t. This is proven (Gould et al., 2005).
Step 2: Listen to the problem and give them your full attention. Remember, suicide is not the problem, it is only a “solution” to a perceived unsolvable problem. Do not rush to judgment. Offer hope in any form.
Step 3: Persuade them to access help. Ask: “Will you go with me to get help?” “Will you let me help you get help?” “Will you allow me to call the lifeline for you?”
People considering suicide may not be able to get professional help on their own. When offered a viable option to live, people will almost certainly agree and find great relief in the hope it provides, so don’t hesitate to get involved and take the lead.
Provide reassurance. Tell them: “I want you to live.” “I’m on your side, we’ll get through this together.”
Follow your gut, if you think that the person may act on his/her thoughts of suicide, call 911 or offer to take them to the nearest emergency room.
If you do not think that immediate help is needed, provide them with contact information for the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or Crisis Text Line.
Get others involved. Ask them who else might help. Mashpia? Family? Friends? Rabbi?
Offer to work with whoever is going to provide counseling or treatment.
Follow up with a visit or a phone call to let the person know you care about what happens to them.
Remember that hope is the key to preventing suicide. You can be the source of that hope, and by doing so, you may save a life.
Free confidential crisis intervention via SMS message. Available 24 hours a day, every day throughout the US, UK, and Canada and can be reached by texting HOME to 741741, 85258, or 686868 respectively.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network that provides a 24/7, toll-free hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. 1800-274-talk (8255)
Rabbi Zalman Abraham is the director of marketing and strategic planning for JLI. This article was originally published in the Nshei Chabad Newsletter. It was reviewed by Dr. Sigrid Pechenik, PsyD, who served as director of suicide prevention for New York State from 2016-2020, and is a senior clinical advisor for JLI’s The Wellness Institute.
“Suicide Prevention in Schools,” a presentation given by Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, Vice President of Research of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention through JLI