Roee Grutman, Karen Douglas and Katie Stack: These are the names of the three Newton high school students who took their lives in the past four months.
What is happening to our children? Is the pressure so unbearable that they see suicide as the only alternative in their lives? And where is that pressure coming from? School, home, the playing field? Are their feelings of despair so deeply internalized that we, their parents, only see the usual adolescent angst? I don’t have answers – only deep sadness and raw fear.
There are always statistics to pair with any tragedy. In the case of teen suicide, the statistics are particularly sobering. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention report that for youths between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third-leading cause of death. It results in about 4,600 lives lost each year.
Deaths from youth suicide are only part of the story. According to the CDC, more young people survive suicide attempts than actually die. A nationwide survey of youth in 9th through 12th grades, both in public and private schools, found that 16 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan and 8 percent reported trying to take their own lives in the 12 months preceding the survey. There are also about 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 who receive medical care for selfinflicted injuries at emergency rooms across the country each year.
One of the more recent and visible projects addressing teen suicide has been the Internet-based “It Gets Better.” Founded by gay activist Dan Savage and his husband, the enterprise began as a response to the high suicide rate among LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth by featuring gay adults in videos communicating that life improves as kids grow up. The campaign was so successful that there is a dedicated website with more than 50,000 videos made by adults of all sexual orientations encouraging kids to work through hard times because life always gets better.
Efrem Epstein knows about weathering tough times. As an adult, Epstein came out the other end of a severe depression and in gratitude for his recovery volunteered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2009 he was invited to participate in World Suicide Prevention Day, where he saw a number of diverse organizations present programs in their communities in support of suicide prevention. It was a light-bulb moment for Epstein, who realized that there was no Jewish organization dedicated to working on suicide prevention. “I knew I needed to create an organization with Jewish nuances in mind,” Epstein said in a recent interview. The result was the creation of Elijah’s Journey, so named for the prophet Elijah who asked God to take his life after a trying time. In response, G-d told Elijah to take a 40-day journey to rethink his life.
This is one of the text studies that Epstein teaches in synagogue groups, Limmud classes and Hillel programs. He says, “Developing text studies and programs using a Jewish lens opens up the lines of communication about suicide.” In his presentations, Epstein also points to Numbers 11 in which an overwhelmed Moses asks G-d to end his life. G-d advises Moses to surround himself with 70 elders who can share his burdens with him.
In addition to offering Jewish wisdom on the subject, Epstein notes, “These texts highlight the fact that suicide is not new. Biblical characters had suicidal feelings and it is becoming a lot less taboo in the Jewish community to talk about it. Part of the challenge that Elijah’s Journey has had has been to get the word out there. The issue has not been on the Jewish community’s radar. There are 1 million suicide attempts every year resulting in 40,000 actual suicides. But we have worked with synagogues of all denominations to convince the Jewish community that it is a critical issue for the community.”
To introduce its mission into homes, Elijah’s Journey is working on a document for Passover that families can read at their Seder when they open the door for Elijah. “We’re hoping that we can incorporate thinking about suicide prevention into the Seder ceremony,” says Epstein. There also plans to develop information for visiting the shiva house of someone lost to suicide.
For now, though, I’d like to take a moment to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for Roee Grutman, Karen Douglas and Katie Stack. May G-d comfort the families and friends who loved these young people among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and the entire world.
Yitgadal veyitkadash shemey raba
Be’alma di vera chir’utey
U’vechayey di’chol beit yisrael
Ba’agala u’vizman kariv ve’imru amein Yehey sh’mey raba mevorach le’alam u’le’almey almaya
Yitbarach ve’yishtabach ve’yitpa’ar ve’yitromam ve’yitnasey
Ve’yit’hadar ve’yit’aleh ve’yit’halal
She’mey d’kud’sha b’rich hu
Le’eyla min kol birchata ve’shirata tushbechata ve’nechemata
Da’amiran be’alma ve’imru amein
Yehey sh’lama raba min shemaya ve’chayim
Aleynu ve’al kol yisrael ve’imru amen
O’seh shalom bimromav
Hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu ve’al kol yisrael
Magnified and sanctified be Your name, O G-d, throughout the world, which You have created according to Your will. May Your sovereignty be accepted in our own days, in our lives, and in the life of all the House of Israel, speedily and soon, and let us say, Amen.
May Your great name be blessed for ever and ever.
Exalted and honored, adored and acclaimed be Your name, O Holy One. Blessed are You, whose glory transcends all praises, songs and blessings voiced in the world, and let us say, Amen.
Grant abundant peace and life to us and to all Israel, and let us say, Amen.
May You who establish peace in the heavens, grant peace to us, to Israel, and to all the earth, and let us say, Amen.