Raizel Direnfeld-O'Brien
Mental Health Education Specialist

We don’t have ‘that’ problem here… suicide stigmas in the Jewish world

Female hands with text SUICIDE PREVENTION on dark background
Copyright: ©Pixel-Shot

This article will be discussing the topic of suicide. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide please call a suicide and crisis hotline. Israel: ERAN 1201. A list of suicide and crisis lines around the world can be found on this page. 

“Oh no, we don’t have that problem here.”

That problem,” spoken in a hushed tone. From rabbis, army generals, teachers, madrichim (counselors), school directors, and parents. I have heard the topic of suicide brushed off to the side in our global Jewish community, excused as an irrelevant or shameful issue.

I remember a conversation I had with a rabbi about suicide during my seminary years. He told me, “Most of the girls here are normal. They don’t need such intense help.” 

A few years later, a madrich (counselor) at a secular boarding school shared the same sentiment, “There is nothing to worry about at our school. Our students here are normal. Every now and then we have a student who needs to see a counselor, and we watch them very closely.”

When I asked a group of former IDF soldiers about mental health in the army, they told me, “No, they are soldiers, they should know better in the army than to think such things.” 

What people are afraid to openly acknowledge is that thoughts of suicide are normal. Most people have, casually, at some point in their life thought about what it would be like if they didn’t exist anymore. The vast majority of people, in and out of the Jewish world, have had suicide touch their lives in some way. 

My seven years as a call operator on the American National Youth Suicide and Crisis Hotline comes up in conversation quite often, and I see the relief in people’s eyes as I transform into a “safe person.” Once that wall comes down, I hear all kinds of stories from all kinds of people, sharing their personal experiences, or that of their loved ones, who struggle with suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide). These conversations are in line with the current statistics. 

In the 2017, Israel Ministry of Health report, suicide was found to be the second leading cause of death for males aged 15-24, the third leading cause for females of the same age group, and the third leading cause of death for males 25-44. The Ministry reported that 26% of deaths by suicide were in the olim (immigrant) population, with Ethiopian olim at a three times higher risk than other olim groups. In the 2019 Israel Ministry of Health report, there were 6,838 recorded attempts of suicide that lead to hospitalization. Suicide is the number one cause of death for soldiers during non-war times.

The stigmas around suicide, which keep the topic hidden away in shame-filled silence, hurt our community. The silence and lack of recognition puts pressure on those who are struggling to feel as though they are a sinful burden. These people who we should be helping, instead keep their struggles hidden away in shame. 

Not talking about suicide, leads to more deaths by suicide. 

Let’s take the topic of suicide out from hushed conversation, and learn why people think about killing themselves, how we can tell if someone is thinking about suicide, and ways which we can help anyone struggling with suicidal ideation. 

Contrary to popular belief, those who are suicidal don’t want to die; they just don’t want to live. This is an important distinction. 

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed with your life that you wished you could go home and take a week long nap. If you have, then you know what it is like to not want to live. 

People struggling with thoughts of suicide have this same wish, to end the overwhelming emotions they experience in their life. However, their brains are in crisis and therefore see permanently ending their life as the only viable option. 

When we reach a heightened state of crisis, our brains start functioning under a stress response. In this state, we switch to black and white thinking. We lose the ability to think with higher level functioning (in the prefrontal cortex) which allows us to imagine the “gray area” and think of alternative solutions. Those who die by suicide, neurologically speaking, could not imagine another way out of their situation at that time. 

But isn’t suicide still the greatest sin one can commit? In short, it is near impossible to commit the sin of suicide. 

In Bereshit (Genesis 9:5) it says “and surely your blood of your souls I will demand.” Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud interprets this verse to mean, “And surely from your souls (‘from yourselves’) I will demand your blood (‘I will hold you liable for taking your own life’). And it is from here we understand the prohibition against suicide. 

Rabbi Yechiel Epstein, a renowned halachic (Jewish law) expert, elaborates on the definition of suicide in his work, Aruch HaShulchan. He explains that only one who kills themselves free from internal or external coercion is considered to have committed the sin of suicide. If an extreme emotional state or mental illness is present, than it is considered that the person was coerced into suicide. Following suit, the person who died by “coerced” suicide – which is practically all suicides –  is still treated like any other death, with respect to the body and a proper Jewish burial. 

What behaviors can we look for in others that show that they might be thinking about suicide?

When I give my workshops on suicide prevention, I like to change the phrasing often used when talking about suicidal behaviors. Rather than discussing ‘warning signs’, I like to parrot the language used in the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (in which I am certified) and discuss  ‘Invitations for Help’. 

“Warning signs” sounds scary, the phrase is associated with staying away. “Invitations for Help”, quite literally invites us to talk about suicide and brings us much closer to preventing it. 

This infographic shows you what Invitations for help look like in actions, feelings, physical changes, and thoughts/statements.

ASIST – Invitations for Help

When we see an invitation for help, and believe someone may be thinking of suicide, what do we do next?

The most important step to prevent a death by suicide, is to ask the person, directly, if they are thinking about killing themselves. 

You cannot put the idea of killing oneself in someone’s head by asking this question!

Let me explain with an analogy. 

I am a vegetarian who has kept kosher her entire life. If you were to ask me, “Raizel, would you like some of this bacon.” I would reply “no.” I don’t eat pork because it is not kosher, and I don’t eat meat for personal reasons. Asking me if I want bacon doesn’t make me start questioning if I should change my current diet. I know that I don’t want to eat bacon and that’s that. 

When discussing the considerably more significant topic of ending ones own life, you cannot change someone’s desire to live by merely asking that person if they are thinking of suicide. You only communicate to them that you care and want to offer support.  

Furthermore, there are two powerful forces at play which people often forget: the survival instinct and hope. 

Remember earlier when I said that suicidal people don’t want to die, they just don’t want to live? When I am de-escalating a suicidal crisis, I am working together with that person’s survival instinct and intrinsic hopes. Together, I help bring them out of the stress response, and back to that place, in which they can imagine the alternative solutions and remember that they don’t want to die. 

If you think someone may be contemplating suicide, ask them directly, “are you thinking of killing yourself.” 

Show them that you don’t think they should be relegated to hushed conversations. Show them that you care and are comfortable talking about anything they may be struggling with; up to and including thoughts of suicide. Show them that you are there to help them and don’t find their challenges to be shameful or sinful. 

Ask them directly, and listen to the answer. 

If the answer is ‘no,’ this may be an opportunity to open up the conversation to other struggles they might want to talk about. 

If the answer is ‘yes,’ then sit with them and listen to their story. Listen without judgment. When they are ready, ask them if they can promise that they will stay safe until they can get long term help. You can offer them a suicide hotline as a resource. 

Suicide and crisis hotlines are also great resources for those supporting people thinking about suicide.

If you think someone might be contemplating suicide and are not sure how to talk to them, call a hotline. There, a trained professional can walk you through how to have the conversation, specific to your circumstance. You also deserve support. Being there for someone who is struggling with suicidal ideation is very scary and emotional. Hotlines are also a place for you to debrief and be helped as you navigate your experience in this situation.  

We need to embrace those who are struggling with thoughts of suicide. Break the stigma that keeps the topic of suicide hidden in shame-filled silence and help our global community prevent deaths by suicide.     


About the Author
Raizel Direnfeld-O’Brien, originally from Portland, Oregon, is a mental health education specialist. Raizel began her work in the mental health field as a suicide and crisis hotline operator and transitioned into the education field teaching social and emotional health to middle school, high school, and college students. She is passionate that education is one of the most powerful forms of mental health care! Through student focused interactive workshops and courses, on social media @mentalhealthedu.israel, and other educational outlets, Raizel aims to empower people with practical strategies and tools to take care of their mental health, both day-to-day and at challenging times in their lives.
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