I am very afraid. I am afraid for the teenagers in our community who have had to cope with the deaths of their friends, classmates and youth group members from suicide. I am afraid that in our leafy, suburban Washington neighborhoods our kids are succumbing to pressure and disillusionment, coming to the conclusion that taking their own lives is the only way to escape their despair. And I am afraid that as parents and well-meaning adults, we may be unequipped to stem this alarming tide.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended the memorial service for a teenager who was a student at a local high school. This young woman, though not a member of my congregation, was friends with many teenagers who are, and she took her life to the shock and horror of seemingly everyone she knew. In the course of the service, it was related that this teenager “just couldn’t figure out her purpose in the world” and therefore lost the will to continue living.
I sat there wondering why a 15-year-old would even think that she had to have her whole life figured out already. Have we become so singularly focused on our kids’ academic prowess and marketability that if teenagers haven’t planned out their whole lives by 10th grade they think they’re doomed to be failures?
Is the standardized testing/college admissions/scholarship rat-race making kids for whom such things don’t come easily feel that they won’t have options to get a decent higher education or enjoy a meaningful future? Has the teenage hustle for extracurricular activities, volunteering and leadership opportunities been reduced to strategic resume padding in order to gain an edge over one’s classmates, rather than being commitments possessing their own intrinsic value? Have parents become so inured by our teenagers’ angst that we are missing critical signs and cues that could wind up saving our children’s lives?
There is a touching story in the Talmud that describes the attempted suicide of Rav Kahana (Kidushin 40a). Rav Kahana had been reduced to poverty and seemingly had an inappropriate dalliance with a woman who was not his wife. Thinking that he hit rock bottom, Rav Kahana jumps from his rooftop only to be rescued by Elijah the Prophet, who arrives just in the nick of time. As Elijah cradles the man he saved in his arms, he asks him what made him attempt to take his life. Elijah then listens to the pain and misfortune Rav Kahana shares with him. Before letting him go, Elijah gives Rav Kahana resources and support to improve his situation so that hopefully he would never be induced to take his own life again.
Elijah’s deep empathy and compassion should remind us that there are indeed signs that we can all look for in our friends and family members, and actions we can take to help someone in need. Have you noticed a personality change, some sudden or gradual deviation from how the person typically behaves?
Does the person seem moody or agitated more than usual? Is the person pulling away from family or friends, isolating himself or just wanting to be alone? Have you noticed a decline of personal hygiene or self-care, or that the person seems hopeless or overwhelmed by her circumstances? If you have witnessed any of these signs from someone you know, you must do something to help. Be compassionate; be a listener; reassure the person that you care and that her or she is not alone. If the situation becomes dire, speak to someone immediately: a trusted adult, a parent, a rabbi. If you feel that someone’s life is in jeopardy, call the Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Saving someone’s life always overrides maintaining a confidence or protecting a person’s reputation.
And if you are someone who struggles with questions of why you are in this world, or who is suffering silently inside, know that whatever you are feeling inside right now can heal and improve. There are countless people who love you and would be there for you in an instant if you told them you need them.
Know that there are rabbis and counselors with whom you can share your feelings, and who can help you find the resources to feel better. You don’t have to have your whole life figured out now, and even the things that now appear obscure will, over time, become clearer.
Suicide is a permanent answer to a temporary question. It is an impulse that, if acted upon, can never be undone. Before you hurt yourself, or do something you can never do over, remember, you are special, you are loved, and you are in this world for a reason. The excitement of life is the gradual discovery of what we are meant to do. May you be blessed with many long, rewarding years to discover that for yourself.
Rabbi Adam J. Raskin is the spiritual leader of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac.