HOW we discuss it publicly & amongst ourselves impacts whether it encourages or discourages people from committing this act and THAT is what this post discusses.
In short: Society is doing it all wrong.
The way people discuss, talk, blog, tweet, and write about it makes it WORSE. It increases the risk. And we need to know how to do it RIGHT.
But DIRECTLY dealing with a person who feels this way demands more compassion than external discussions do.
When the Need to Discuss It with My Teenagers First Occurred
And yes, it was sparked by the melodramatic publicizing of the self-destruction of CW (hamavin yavin)—a well-known and popular figure in the frum community (little did the majority of us know the truth).
And I addressed the situation with what I understood to be the Torah attitude...which is VERY different than the modern Western secular approach.
Glamorization, Romantization, and Sentimentalization Encourage Rather than Discourage – DON'T Do That with This (or Any Other Kind of Murder)
We DON'T want to do that!
Probably Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point provided the most famous proof of this, but other examples abound.
Certainly, the self-caused deaths of popular & charismatic figures make it attractive in a demented follow-the-leader type of way.
But the surrounding media hype worsens it.
All the sentimental romanticism of the act, plus what led up to it—and all presented with an outpouring of sympathy and self-blame (i.e., "How can we give our youth what they need to prevent this from happening again?"), making tragic heroes of them...all these make it compellingly attractive in a sick way.
But even when the figure isn't particularly beloved, just the attention and drama surrounding the figure can elicit a string of attempts.
This happened (though I don't know the details) with CW's final act of self-destruction.
As we know, the pathetic suicide of a particularly sinful & charismatic figure under flamboyant circumstances unleashed a worldwide Jewish media storm.
The frum media kept a damper on it to varying degrees (except for one outlet, which insisted on lauding the deviant, despite the outlet's easy access to dayanim with evidence of the truth regarding his prior actions AND the indisputable FACT that he committed the severe Torah prohibition of taking his own life).
Not surprisingly, one of the sinner's alleged victims took her own life not long after. I don't know the details or actual facts, but I was told she also did it with a certain amount of drama.
People blame his act for that.
They claim she claimed he stole her opportunity for closure and justice.
However, if true, is that a reason for her to give up her own Olam Haba and take her own life?
She's responsible for her action.
Yet CW also shares responsibility (as does the global media) because perhaps she wouldn't have done it had they not done what they did.
But sadly, LOTS of people experience trauma from others and never receive closure and justice...and they keep themselves alive.
Many even manage to live fulfilling lives, despite the lack of justice and closure.
(Holocaust survivors, for example.)
It's not a reason for self-harm. And no matter what she claimed, that's not her real reason either. As the research states, it's a lot more complex than that.
With the ad nauseum histrionics expressed in the media, both online and in print, this IS what often happens after a highly publicized suicide of a key figure.
There are studies on this. I'm not making this up. Here's just one example:
COVID-19 and suicide: Just the facts. Key learnings and guidance for action - PMC – www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8110323/
Here is an excerpt from that article, which excerpts a letter from Dr. Duleeka Kripe, a member of The International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration (ICSPRC), an international group of researchers and leaders from 39 countries (boldface my own addition):
We are delighted Asian Journal of Psychiatry has been able to prioritize and rapidly publish articles related to the impact of the pandemic on mental health.
However, the titles and the content of some articles have given us some cause for concern.
There is a large body of research literature documenting the potentially harmful effects of news reporting of suicide deaths on population suicide rates.
Concerning aspects of reporting include description of suicide methods, sensational headlines, and excessive reporting – these can lead to suicidal behavior among vulnerable people.
A frequent source of these news stories is academics or journals promoting (e.g. through social media) and/or press-releasing findings, sometimes with sensational headlines.
These may be used by individuals and/or news organizations with particular agendas which can have dangerous consequences.
They have observed that media stories linking suicide to COVID-19 mostly originate from bereaved families and mental health/suicide prevention experts and organizations releasing data and using alarmist language.
In keeping with this, over the last few months have seen several sensational headlines in news stories based on reports of academic articles and wanted to alert you to the potential impact this may have on suicide risk more widely.
Who is discussing suicide in a way that may davka increase suicide?
Again, these are the main groups:
- bereaved families
- mental health experts
- suicide prevention experts
These are davka the people who feel genuine concern and anguish over suicide.
But their compassion & emotions take over (with the best of intentions) producing the OPPOSITE effect.
(Also, the article's research proves that covid did NOT increase rates! Rather, society's attitude influences rates.)
The letter goes to offer 4 recommendations regarding how to write about it:
- 1) Remove references to methods of suicide from article titles and avoid detailed (e.g. how a ligature was attached) description of methods in the body of the article.
- Descriptions of a novel method of suicide should be avoided.
- 2) Avoid speculation about ‘triggers’ or cause of suicide (in this case COVID-19 and its associated public health measures).
- Suicide is extremely complex, and it is rarely the case that a single event or factor leads someone to take their own life.
- We recommend that a statement about the complexity prefaces any speculation.
- 3) Avoid sensational language, such as “surge”, “spike”, “crisis”, tsunami” and “epidemic” when describing the potential impact of the pandemic – these terms have been used out of context, generating sensational news headlines.
- There is currently no strong evidence of increases in suicide deaths during the first few months of the pandemic ( John et al (2020) ) .
- 4) Particular care should be taken when referring to suicidal behavior in young people, as this group is particularly susceptible to suicide contagion.
Yet isn't this what nearly everyone does...with the best of intentions?
(And haven't I unwittingly done this myself?)
As stated above: 'We recommend that a statement about the complexity prefaces any speculation."
So if speculations are discussed at all, a statement about the complexity should come before any speculation.
Publicity Often Leads to More of a Bad Thing
(A tiny minority do.)
Many are more concerned with sounding compassionate and deep, rather than actually preventing more people from taking that miserable step.
By the way, the same idea applies to publicizing the names of murderers. The attention paradoxically encourages others with the same murderous tendencies.
The liberal media compounds this with its insistence on offering a sympathetic analysis into WHY & HOW the murderer got that way.
And they do that with incidents of self-destruction too.
But whether it's the killing of oneself or others, people who already suffer from these dark tendencies find encouragement & attraction in the attention shined on these awful acts.
Note: This attraction is often not conscious. The frenzy of attention causes the idea to become more attractive to these people WITHOUT them realizing WHY they feel so much more pulled toward the idea. It just naturally builds up in their mind.
So yes, one may feel sympathetic about the reasons a person took their own life.
One may desire to sound compassionate when discussing it.
But for the good of society and to prevent future attempts, it's best to downplay it & do nothing to justify or dramatize it.
It's no coincidence, for example, that self-destruction occurs more commonly in cultures that glamorize or romanticize it (like Japan, China, and Russia).
In fact, in his interactions with secular Jews, Rav Shlomo Hoffman succeeded in identifying the culture (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, etc.) of unnamed authors purely based on their novels' attitude toward sin—which include suicide.
(See Secrets of the Soul: Volume I, Self-Awareness & Dealing with Challenges, pages 56-63.)
Anecdotal Evidence Showing One Leading to Another
I went on to explain how it's a form of murder.
And while nearly every other sin can be rectified in some way, and teshuvah can be done...suicide results in NO opportunity for ANY teshuvah or rectification.
"No matter how much a person is suffering in this world," I said, "intentionally ending one's life ONLY makes it worse. Suicide means the person will suffer even MORE."
They were all ears.
"In general," I continued, "regardless of any seemingly sympathetic circumstances surrounding the suicide, a suicide goes STRAIGHT to Gehinnom!"
(I know, I know...what a fun mother I am!)
This led them to build on that idea, as they drew their own conclusions and ideas regarding the irreparable & irredeemable outcome, plus the inability to do teshuvah or do anything to mitigate the suffering in the Next World.
I also explained some of the real-world consequences, like how it's one of the most abusive acts a parent can do to a child, then described a personal example I knew, in which the father offed himself and then years later, two of his sons also took their own lives within a year of each other.
Their father unwittingly made death seem like a legitimate option when life feels unbearable.
(I can't even fathom the feelings of the wife/mother.)
"In addition to whatever he is already suffering for his own sin," I explained, "he also will need to atone for the deaths of his sons, who were obviously influenced by him."
(As shown statistically. In addition to the fact that the first son probably would not have made the life-choices leading up to his end had his father been alive and involved in his life.)
The Torah Attitude
Sure, there are times to die al kiddush Hashem; there are a finite number of transgressions one must die for rather than commit.
And in such cases, it's called "dying for the sanctification of Hashem"—which is very different than other terminologies used.
(And this discussion does not apply to horrific, extreme, and unusual cases, like an Auschwitz prisoner running into an electric fence. I've no idea what Chazal says about that.)
In general, suicide is the WORST thing a person can do.
It is a truly irreparable sin.
As long as a person lives, he or she can do their best to rectify any kind of sin, no matter how awful.
But not after they die.
Even if they were a very good person until that point and don't have so many wrongdoings on their account, that sin of self-destruction plunges them into a truly miserable place after death.
In other words: No relief.
However miserable things were before, they get even worse with that act.
And THAT aspect—looking at the real consequence of a wrongful death—also contribute to prevention
Fear of Negative Consequences Actually HELPS Prevention
A non-Jewish classmate in deep depression after being dumped by her boyfriend confessed that she very much wished die, but she was afraid.
Thinking I understood her, I felt relieved that, despite her unending emotional anguish, she was too afraid to kill herself.
But then she mumbled, "No, I'm not afraid to die."
She paused before continuing.
Then she said, "I'm...I'm afraid of going to Hell."
She smile self-consciously and added, "I know suicide is a sin and I'm...well, I'm afraid of burning in Hell for it." She shrugged uncomfortably. "You know..."
Being fairly assimilated & always hearing the Conservative & Reform movements perpetuating the lie of "Jews don't BELIEVE in Hell!", I actually didn't know.
But I felt grateful for her belief because it kept her alive.
Two years later, she was mostly back to her old self & engaging in activities she enjoyed.
It took a while, but she managed to come out of the darkness.
But she never would have experienced that light had she not feared the afterlife consequences of suicide.
And that says something.
Here's a second story:
A Jewish friend came very close to ending her own life, but blessedly discarded her plans when she realized how irreparably terrible the effect would be on her young-adult children.
Her research led her to discover that suicide is one of the most abusive acts a parent can commit against a child, with terrible repercussions for the child.
She decided to remain alive in whatever emotional state she suffered—basically just living for the kids.
Happily, her life vastly improved later. (It took a while, plus some ups and downs, but her life truly got so much better.)
Having said all that, I'm not saying we should tell a despairing person, "Oh yeah? Well, you're gonna BURN IN HELL if you off yourself!" and then walk off in a huff.
Instead, we can respond with empathy, genuine caring, compassion, positive motivation...plus explaining how self-destruction always only makes things WORSE.
There is absolutely no relief of pain whatsoever. (Or whatever they imagine they'll benefit from self-destruction.)
Even if they believe "Oh, I'm already going to Hell for the things I've done," they need to know that is NOT TRUE.
First of all, their suffering atones for their sins.
Also, their sins may not be actual sins, but just a distorted self-perception. And finally, ending one's own life makes any afterlife suffering WORSE.
So it really does not pay. (Nor make any sense.)
And for people who simply cannot find a glimmer of light in the darkness of that hour, the fear of negative consequences really does work as a preventative.
So while it's best to give a despairing person positive reasons & goals to hope & live...fear of the terrible & irreparable consequences of suicide can definitely save lives (as the above 2 stories—and more—indicate).
And it's shameful how secular society refuses to include these ideas of an unpleasant Afterlife too while behaving in a way that davka encourages these destructive attempts.
Looking at the Nitty-Gritty
Not to mention, the trauma for anyone (especially loved ones) who first discover the aftermath.
In one case, it was frum children searching for wood for their community's Lag B'Omer bonfire.
And what about parents forced to make an identification of their own child?
Let's turn it around this way: Would you hang up a corpse in the home of a person you love for them to find?
Would you leave a dead person around where children are searching for wood for Lag B'Omer?
That all sounds really cruel and psychopathic.
Yet that's exactly the kind of thing these people do when they take their own life.
Are these people we should coo over, publicize, dramatize, sensationalize, or romanticize?
When You Should NOT Respond This Way
As per my shitah, I immediately & casually said, "That's too bad. However much he was suffering before, he just made things a million times worse."
They agreed. Then we discussed it.
Later, I went to the shivah.
And because I am not a completely insensitive wart, I did NOT mention to the mother ANYTHING written in this post.
Despite security cameras recording his last moments, people wisely chose to leave her in the dark about it.
And the truth is, I'm not sure how much premeditation there was on his part or what state he was in those moments.
As stated above, these things are complex. I'm not sure what his intentions were immediately leading up to the act, in addition to other unknowns.
And instead of revealing my thoughts on the topic, I just cried with her and listened to her.
Because in that situation (a mother sitting shiva), pure empathy and total agreement are the most compassionate and healing things to do.
But when WRITING about it?
Writing and discussing it publicly calls for a more clinical and muffled approach.
Unless, of course, a writer doesn't care about the potentially deadly results of the words...
The Cold, Hard Yet Life-Saving Approach
Despite everything presented here to the contrary, some will see my Torah-and-evidence-based approach as cold-hearted and displaying an appalling lack of sensitivity, knowledge, and compassion.
It's the opposite, but some people may never see that.
I'm interested in saving lives, not ending them. So if I have to come off as a callous jerk who "simply doesn't understand" in order to do it, then so be it.
I only hope no one will contact to me to emote about how misguided they think I am!
A Summary of Do's and Don'ts
- Speculation about the cause or triggers (no matter how sympathetic)
- Impassioned expressions of sympathy or sentiment (this ugly act hurts other people pretty badly, and the person doesn't deserve the accolades they sometimes receive in memorium)
- Alarmist language ("Crisis!!!")
- Detailed descriptions of methods
- Sensationalist descriptions of rates ("Surge! Epidemic! Tsunami!")
- Excessive reporting (i.e. no need to publish articles, posts, tweets, etc. all day every day for weeks...even obsessing about it publicly for one day can negatively influence the vulnerable)
- Any of the above in headlines (even writing the word in a headline is problematic)
- Any of the above where young people might read it
- Preface discussions or reports with a statement of the complexity of motivations
- Mention the dismal outcomes for the person (negative effects on loved ones, the inability to achieve their goal of revenge or relief due to the suffering in the Next World, etc.)
- Cultivate the attitude of it as useless in achieving their aims (like my friend mentioned above who wanted relief from pain, but due to her religious beliefs, she realized that ending her life would NOT relieve her pain...just the opposite)
- Adopt the Torah's attitude, which includes acknowledgement of uncertainty and complex factors, plus a reserved and disapproving attitude toward the act itself.
Please remember the worst offenders in this regard tend to be the ones with the best intentions!:
- bereaved family members
- mental health experts
- suicide prevention experts
Certainly, bereaved families must have an outlet for speaking out their pain and for healing.
However, it needs to be done in a way that DOESN'T increase the risk for others.
And despite common "wisdom" (not!) and passionately good intentions, everyone (including the experts) must use reservations when writing/speaking about it.
(We can also write letters to editors warning them against sensationalist headlines and speculations.)
In order to save lives and prevent this act, that's what we all must do.
And that's that.
May Mashiach please come speedily with rachamim to fix everything.