Thinking about Suicide and Mental Health During Kol Nidrei

This article is a written version of a speech given in 5782/2021

By Rabbi Brian I. Michelson

It was a moment I had almost forgotten, until I got the phone call. I had held her in my arms and blessed her when she was just a month old. I kissed her on the top of her head as I did with all the babies I named before the pandemic. As I held her, her life was full of hope and potential. She was sweet and innocent, and life was full of possibilities.

I know I am not alone in this, but sometimes when I remember a person, I remember the way they looked when I last saw them. They don’t get any older, or grow, or mature in my memory. They stay the baby, the bar mitzvah student, the bride, or the mourner. I am often shocked when the b’nei mitzvah child returns, and I have to look up at them instead of down. They are fixed in a moment in time. 

Then I got the phone call.

I knew from the instant the call was put through: It was not going to be good news. I can still hear the franticness in her mother’s voice when she told me this baby I held in my arms had died. It was a suicide. She was 19 years old. 

As a parent, I cannot imagine the pain and loss families feel, and I pray I am never in that position. As a rabbi, however, I know these calls are always a possibility; still, I pray they never come. The sense of helplessness and despair is overwhelming, and the only thing I can do is stand with the family.

Suicide, suicide attempts and mental health issues are an epidemic that plagues our society. There was a brief stir this year attached to the Summer Olympics and the participation — or nonparticipation — of Simone Biles and other athletes. People started discussing the stress they felt and its impact on their ability to perform. For a moment, a spotlight shone on the impact and importance of mental health issues. But that was so last month, and people have moved on.

If you think suicides are the outliers, something unusual, you are wrong. This young woman’s death by suicide was the third to touch my family in the last year. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide has affected 54 percent of all Americans in some way. In 2019, the United States saw nearly 1.4 million suicide attempts. Of those, 47,500 resulted in death. To put that into context, that’s 130 people who die every day by suicide. Overall, it is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause for people aged 34 and younger. More than a third of people who died by suicide were 55 or older. The suicide rate for veterans was one and a half times higher than in the general population. These statistics are all prepandemic numbers, and it is suspected that they will be even higher over the past eighteen months.

It is easy to think if these people would just get some help, this crisis could be avoided. But according to 2020 data, more than 73 percent of our country does not have enough mental health providers to serve residents. Among adults diagnosed with mental health conditions, nearly 45 percent did not receive mental health services in the past year. We may be amid the coronavirus pandemic, but we are also witnessing a mental health crisis that goes largely unseen. One in four adults experiences mental illness in a given year, approximately 82.5 million Americans. We cannot keep silent. It is believed that by 2030, depression will outpace cancer, stroke, war and accidents as the world’s leading cause of disability and death. Tragically, too many people take their own lives as a result of severe depression. They leave behind children, parents and families who mourn their death and suffer in their absence. For them we cannot keep silent.

Tonight, on this holiest night of the year, I am speaking about mental illness, because as your rabbi for more than 20 years, I have seen just how many lives it affects. I have seen parents desperately worried about their depressed teens. I have seen families living with the painful legacy that comes from being raised by a bipolar parent. I have seen spouses exhausted after years of caring for a mentally ill partner. And I have seen so many who suffer from mental illness alone and isolated, looking for a way to connect. Most tragic are the families in our community whose lives have been permanently marred by the suicide of a son or daughter, a parent or sibling.  

I am speaking about mental illness for all of you who love someone whose lives are darkened by it. I am speaking because I don’t believe anyone should have to suffer alone or in silence, afraid to reveal their truth or their pain. As it so happens, September is National Suicide Prevention Month.

Yet despite its prevalence, people who live with mental illness continue to feel ostracized, marginalized and misunderstood. Recently, a woman wrote about her friend who suffers from depression: “She is patronized, ignored and ridiculed…but rarely appreciated or respected. Why is it that we can laud cancer survivors for how hard they’ve fought, but we don’t think about mental illness the same way?”  The great Robin Williams, who took his own life in 2014, said in Good Will Hunting, “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not! The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.” Despite the advances in treating mental illness, so many misperceptions still exist. We need to be clear: Mental illness is not a moral failing. It is not a weakness. It is not a character flaw. 

For millennia, Judaism has understood depression to be a part of life. Moses cried out to G-d, “I can no longer bear the burden of this people alone…it is too heavy for me…Please kill me, let me no longer see my wretchedness.”  King Saul was overcome by a ruach ra’ah, a “bad spirit” or what we may see as bipolar disorder today. Our biblical ancestors faced horrific darkness. Rabbi Elliot Kukla explains: “What the biblical stories teach us is that mental distress is a natural part of human life and a part of every society. Surviving our own moments of emotional suffering and finding the strength to walk with others through incredible pain are ancient and sacred obligations.” 

Even the Talmud, written 1,500 years ago, discusses depression and how best to offer support. In tractate Berakhot, we read the story of Rabbi Eleazar, who is ill and suffering from deep despair. When his friend Rabbi Yochanan visits him, he finds Eleazar alone in a darkened room, facing the wall. When Yochanan sees his friend crying, he asks, “Why are you crying?” Then Eleazar finally answers, “I weep because all light fades into darkness, because all beauty eventually rots.” Yochanan, sitting beside his friend, replies, “Yes, ultimately everything does die. So perhaps you have reason to weep.” Then Yochanan sits down with his friend and weeps alongside him. After a while, Yochanan asks, “Does darkness comfort you? Do you want these sufferings?” “No,” Eleazar says. “Then give me your hand,” replies Yochanan, and he lifts Rabbi Eleazar from his bed and out of his darkened room. Sometimes the best way to help people who suffer is not to talk them out of their pain; it is to be present with them and accompany them in their darkness. 

Judaism has always understood that physical and mental illness are equally deserving of healing, and we are all a key to that healing. We must make it safer for more people to come out from behind the shadows and find the support and care they need — both those living with mental illness and the family and friends who care for them. We need to start talking more openly about the “secret” illness nobody wants to talk about. It wasn’t so long ago when people only spoke in whispers about cancer. Judaism understands emotional and spiritual pain are as real and as serious as that of the body. Just look at the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing: Refuat he-nefesh uh-refuat ha-goof, we pray for healing of the soul and healing of the body. So many of us require both.

In our society, we are so accustomed to avoiding darkness, with night-lights for our children to ward off monsters and televisions blaring at night to fill the silence. We forget darkness is not only inevitable; it can be a powerful and holy place as well. It is where Jacob meets the angel and where Moses comes face to face with G-d. While there may be monsters of one form or another in the darkness, it is only through confronting them that we can truly dispel their power. 

Tonight, on this holy night of introspection, the conversation begins inside of each of us. As we search our souls, we also examine our views and prejudices about mental illness. What words do we use? How might we be perpetuating harmful stigmas when we loosely use words like “wacko” or say someone is acting “crazy?” What might it sound like when we casually say, “That was so bad, I wanted to kill myself” or “I wanted to jump off the bridge?”  

I want to speak directly for a moment to those of you who struggle with mental illness in one form or another every day. I want you to know that I, that we, can never fully understand the depths of your pain or the complexities of your life, but you are not alone. We, your clergy, and your community are here for you. We will try to sit with you in your darkness, we will cry alongside you, and we will take your hand and lead you to the light of day when you feel ready. Most important, we can help you find the resources you need. Continue to be brave and strong, and may this year help you to find compassion and contentment. 

To help you, every member of the congregation will receive a postcard in the coming week that provides the names and phone numbers for national and local mental health and suicide resources. You will find information about the Blue Dove Foundation, a Jewish resource for our community whose kippah I am wearing this evening. Don’t just glance at the card and toss it into recycling. Keep it somewhere. Stick it on your fridge or where you keep important papers. Even if you don’t feel you need the information, someone you know, someone you love, may need it.

For those of you whose loved ones suffer from mental illness or who have experienced the trauma of suicide firsthand — mothers, fathers, children, siblings, friends and partners — your heart is full of both love and pain. Tonight, as I stand before you, I stand in awe of you and all you carry every day. May G-d continue to strengthen you and lift you as you care for the ones you love and yourselves. 

Finally, many of our congregants work as mental health professionals. To you, I offer the following blessing: May you feel the love and gratitude of this entire congregation, for your wisdom and insight, and for the tremendous compassion you show our children, our parents and us. You help us find life again and remind us we belong in this world, and we are worthy of love and kindness. May G-d bless you with peace and fulfillment.

I close with this blessing for us all: In this new year, help us, G-d, to have compassion for ourselves and others, help us to be understanding and kind. Give us strength to face the darkness as well as the light, and help us heal souls with laughter and joy. Keep our hearts open and loving, and bless us with goodness, compassion and peace.

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