Why are we afraid to talk about suicide?

There is nothing more shocking than the devastating news of a life cut short by suicide; whether it’s a college student, a grandmother, or a young child.  Within the last few years our community has suffered the loss of all three. Whether premeditated, through an impulsive act, or an act of play gone too far, for our Torah community that values life above all else, it is painfully difficult to assimilate such an act.

While it’s a commonly held idea that most people in the world are not more than six degrees of separation apart from one another, within our modern Orthodox community, we are probably not more than two degrees or fewer social connections away from each other. And so, even if we’ve never met the bereaved family, this tragedy feels personal, as almost everyone knows someone directly affected by the suicide. We can’t help but feel that if it could happen to them; a friend of a friend, an upstanding family that lives down the block, members of our shul, whose kids attend the local schools, the same summer camps, play on the same sports teams, travel in the same social circles…then it could have happened to me.

Yet we are programmed to protect ourselves from pain and so we avoid, we avert our eyes, we remain silent. But a death by suicide forces a question – how can we show our compassion and support? We must therefore ask ourselves, why we shy away from talking about it? And more importantly, in the aftermath of a suicide, how should we respond as individuals, and as a community, to heighten our sensitivity and awareness to this most difficult topic?

There is an old myth that talking to someone who is suicidal will increase the risk that he or she will act on it. That is simply not true. Studies show that people do not start thinking about suicide just because someone asks them about it. If you suspect that your child is in emotional pain, say that you are worried and want to help them. It is important to ask children, adolescents, or friends who appear depressed if they are having thoughts of hurting themselves, because usually they will not volunteer the information on their own. Sometimes they are reluctant to tell you because they are worried how you will react, so keep in mind that your tone and affect are very important.   Non-judgmental questions and a calm attitude are best to encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings more readily with you.

While depression is the most common cause associated with suicide, it is not the only cause. Sometimes, suicidal ideation is caused by a genetic predisposition. Other times it may be brought on by environmental factors, including difficult life stressors (physical or mental health issues, bullying, compromised self-esteem due to learning disabilities, trauma, substance abuse). Recognize that if someone is thinking about suicide it’s an indication that they are in a great deal of pain and distress.

As a former principal and school psychologist, I’m keenly aware how the bulk of our school day is spent. We focus on academics. But we should allocate time to developing our children’s emotional intelligence, right alongside their academic intelligence. Our schools need to become more sensitive to how children are feeling, rather than just how they are performing on tasks and tests. Time and again I’ve seen how a child’s social-emotional state drives their academic achievement. A happy child will focus, learn, and thrive academically, that child will do far better than a classmate who is anxious, worried, or depressed.

As a community, our response should be to introduce an emotional intelligence curriculum into all grades, from preschool through high school. By providing sensitivity and emotional skill development we can teach students how to identify, understand, label, express, and regulate their emotions. This will serve them well throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Just like students are taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, they can be taught emotional intelligence as well. Students can learn effective strategies for recognizing and articulating negative feelings and behaviors, and how to manage their feelings, both positive and negative. This allows them to navigate their complicated social and emotional worlds with greater awareness, understanding, sensitivity, and compassion.

Our Torah is chock full of guidelines on how to be sensitive and caring to every one of God’s creatures, whether they fly, swim, walk on four feet or two. The Talmud, in Tractate Sota 13a, teaches: Because the Creator shows compassion to all creatures, so should we.  As we are obligated to be kind to animals, and are forbidden to cause them unnecessary suffering, so too we are mandated to show respect to all creatures and must learn to be kind to each other.

Just as we are expected to teach our children how to protect themselves, we must also teach them how to protect others. The best way to teach a child kindness is to teach empathy.  When children can imagine themselves in another person’s predicament, they are more likely to show compassion and more likely to interfere when another child is being mistreated or bullied, leading to a healthier social environment.

A school wide emotional-intelligence curriculum, across all grades, is a gateway to better communication, improved self-awareness, empathy, emotional control, and healthy relationship skills.

Here are some tips to help your child learn empathy by considering the feelings of others:

  • Offering a compliment to a classmate is a great way to make someone else feel good. Encourage your child to focus on a classmate’s strengths rather than on why they can’t be friends. In art class tell someone you like their painting or congratulate the winner of a spelling bee or sports event. Your child may be surprised to see that her nice words will motivate others to offer compliments as well.
  • When someone in the family is acting in an angry or mean way, model for your child how to show empathy – “Your sister seems to be having a bad day. Let’s ask her how we can help.”
  • The dinner table at home is a great place to teach respect and empathy. Teach your child to thank the cook (Mom, Dad, Grandparent, Nanny etc.). Emphasize respecting a person’s time and effort by acknowledging that “this delicious meal must have taken a long time to prepare.”
  • When shopping in a store, explain that we can show respect by not creating extra work for shopkeepers. If you change your mind about an item, help your child return it to where it belongs. After you put your groceries in the car, have your child walk with you to return the cart to its proper location.

Most importantly, show your child the kindness happening around him or her every day, and ask them to suggest ways they can be kind too. Big and small opportunities exist daily. My personal favorite strategy is to pay it forward! Make it a family rule to repay a kindness with a kindness. If someone holds the door open for your child to enter the restaurant, your child can repay the kindness forward by holding the door open for someone else.

By performing simple acts of kindness and compassion, we can inspire and motivate our children to think of others. Every day, there are many opportunities to teach children to show respect and to have empathy. When a child learns to put others first, kindness and compassion becomes second nature and bullying behavior disappears.

As individuals, when there is a death by suicide, our response should be to speak to our children about it, instead of being afraid to discuss it with them.  Raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk or put the idea in one’s mind. On the contrary, it creates the opportunity to educate. Even though suicide is a very difficult topic, it’s important that we speak to our children about it so that we can better understand what they know and how they are feeling. Start a conversation about depression and despair; how feelings of hopelessness can lead one to contemplate ending a life. Discuss impulsivity and the finality of a spur-of-the-moment reckless act, that was not thought through completely.

Most importantly, share with your children the painful and lasting impact suicide has on everyone.  Ask them how they feel about it when they hear that that there has been a suicide in the community. Let them know how you feel about it. You can never go wrong with talking and listening to a child. Through dialogue we create better understanding, connectivity, and develop open lines of communication that may better enable us to protect our children.

Dr. Tani Foger

Psychologist & Educational Consultant

Email her at DrFoger@gmail.com

About the Author
Dr. Tani Foger has worked in the field of education, both in Israel and in the US, for over 35 years. She is an experienced educator and psychologist, with particular expertise in special education, second language acquisition, student learning styles, teacher consultation,social skills, and parenting. She is the Founder and Director of "Let's Talk” - Guidance Workshops for Moving Forward and Conquering the Challenges in our Lives. Dr. Foger is a skilled facilitator offering workshops for all ages at all stages.
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