There is a tendency in some circles to take a tragic event or series of events and try to turn it into a trend that reflects poorly on religious Jews.
There has been a wave of people going public in recent years with memoirs about their rebellion against religious life and the unfortunate misery they endured while forced to adhere to a lifestyle they did not value.
Jewish and secular media are constantly on the lookout for validation or elevation of the concept that the more strictly Orthodox a Jew’s upbringing, the more likely he or she is to be dysfunctional and unhappy – unless they are fortunate enough to escape and write a bestseller about it.
Do not misunderstand me. As president of Our Place, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter, and counseling for our troubled youth, I will not for a moment dismiss the urgent need for such people to find their comfort level and be true to who they are at heart.
It has been one of my life’s missions to help individuals on that path find peace. I have seen far too many tragic outcomes when drugs and conflict take hold and hope is extinguished, along with a young life that held enormous value and promise.
But perspective is important, and perspective is very elusive when it comes to the media. One life – one single precious life – that is snuffed out because suicide seemed the only remedy is a thousand times too high a price to pay. And it is not one life, it is many.
But in recent months, following a few high profile suicides, numbers have been thrown around that strain credibility and present a far more frightening picture than what I and others know actually exists.
I do not believe that more than 70 frum Jews have committed suicide since last Rosh Hashanah, as some have recently asserted in the media. This fits into the narrative of an increasingly dysfunctional community that some would like to see, but it is at odds with the evidence. I pressed one individual who was linked to that figure in a media report, and he assured me it did not come from him.
What’s at stake here is not just pride and accuracy and indignation at media mistreatment. Human lives are at stake because of this irresponsible talk. Because suicide is a disease – and it’s contagious.
Just as unstable people sometimes commit copycat crimes based on what they’ve seen on TV or read about in a newspaper or magazine, so can troubled individuals contemplate suicide when they see the level of attention it draws in its aftermath.
Perhaps some of those using the 70-plus figure are including drug overdoses in their total. In many cases, perhaps most, such deaths are unintentional, the result of unexpectedly potent drugs or inexperience with dosages. In many cases I have seen, such people, while troubled enough to be drawn to drugs, did not intend to end their lives.
Drug abuse can be cured, the toll of an overdose reversed. But suicide is irrevocable.
The Centers for Disease Control recognized copycat suicides as a dangerous phenomenon as far back as 1989, when a workshop was held to address the issue of “media-related suicide contagion.”
Experts agree that the reporting of drug overdoses can be beneficial to the public if it helps publicize the availability of programs such as hotlines and prevention and support groups like Our Place or The Living Room. But it can be detrimental and promote copycats if the coverage focuses on the method of suicide, the outpouring of love for the deceased at the funeral or memorial service, and all the positive attributes of the deceased without also mentioning that the person was deeply troubled.
The attachment of suicide to the idea of “escaping” a religious community is also highly dangerous, especially if it is depicted as a phenomenon larger than it really is. For example, the suicide rate in the general population, according to the American Society for Suicide Prevention, is 12.93 per every 100,000 people. With about 600,000 Orthodox Jews in the New York tri-state area, 70-plus suicides would amount to more than 15 people per 100,000.
I would never ask media outlets to stifle news of an actual tragedy, nor should anyone expect this. What I would ask for is more of the kind of skepticism we see when politicians or corporate leaders make public statements that are often less than truthful and/or self-serving.
Let’s have a smart dialogue about suicide that leaves behind hurtful and dangerous narratives and focuses where it counts most – on extending a compassionate hand to those who need one.