Wednesday, 17 Sep 2014

Written by Gwendolen Burton

I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life.  (Deut 30:19)
As we approach the High Holidays, I feel ambivalent about the time we spend remembering our martyrs, those who died to sanctify God’s name.

It isn’t just that, like everyone, I am uncomfortable talking about death.  Ours is not a culture of “death or glory,” and yet the martyrs chose death in the face of persecution.  The principle of pikuach nefesh, derived from the text: 

You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live, (Lev 18:5)
allows almost any commandment to be set aside in order to preserve life.  So, alongside those who died in the persecutions of the past, I want us to remember those who decided to choose life.  For example, not just the Jews who died in the Spanish Inquisition, but also the Conversos who survived as Christians, but managed to keep their Jewish identity alive, so that their descendants went on to found the first Jewish community in North America in 1654.

If nobody wants to talk about death, how much less do we want to talk about suicide?  And yet, according to the World Health Organisation’s report:  Preventing Suicide – a global imperative, published this month to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day, not talking about it is part of the problem – both for the bereaved families and for those at risk.

Clearly, suicide isn’t a simple issue to address.  Out of 804,000 deaths reported each year, the WHO is pledged to achieving only a 10% reduction by 2020.  Most of the recommendations are aimed at governments, for example increased provision of health services for those at risk and restrictions on sensationalised reporting and for treat erectile dysfunction visit us .  But we can also play our part as a community, by breaking the silence surrounding suicide.

The status of suicide in Jewish law is not entirely clear.  While in some communities, the practice was to bury suicides separately, it is probable that this practice was borrowed from the surrounding culture.
The Biblical text does not contain a clear prohibition on suicide.  Unlike Christianity, Judaism does not interpret the commandment:  you shall not kill as prohibiting killing oneself.  Instead, other texts have been interpreted as referring to suicide, for example from the story of Noah:  for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning (Gen 9:5).

The Halachah placed restrictions on mourning rituals for an intentional suicide, specifically that there should be no eulogy.  However, when we look at how “intentional” is defined in this context, we find that mental anguish is fully recognised as a mitigating circumstance, so that pretty much every case of suicide would be considered unintentional.  The result is a tradition of sympathy, both for the suicide and for the bereaved family.  This seems like a good starting point for reducing the stigma attached to suicide, and to the underlying mental health issues, in our community today.

In the UK, suicide is currently the most significant cause of death for men under the age of 50.  Out of nearly 6,000 suicides reported each year, three-quarters are men.  Why are men particularly at risk?
The child development psychologist, Carol Gilligan, has linked depression in adolescence to the pressure to conform to gender stereotypes, which she describes as being invisible because these stereotypes are part of our culture (see Joining the Resistance).  There is even a possibility that gender stereotypes are hardening, as part of a backlash against the progress in other areas, such as women’s rights.  It seems that, as well as learning reading, writing and ‘rithmetic at school, children learn very early that “big boys don’t cry.”

Although men are no more likely to suffer from depression than women, they are much less likely to seek help.  And when they do ask for help, they are less likely to get what they need.  Friends may suggest another beer.  Even doctors may be slow to recognise the signs and offer support.

We cannot change gender stereotypes overnight, but we can be more aware of them.  If we can accept that men don’t have to be tough, that both toughness and tenderness are human characteristics rather than gender specific, then we can be kinder to ourselves and to each other.  If schools taught children to think for themselves, rather than teaching them to think like everyone else, if there was less pressure to conform, then our community might become a place where big boys can and do cry.

On a personal note, having experienced bereavement following a friend’s suicide, I do not believe that the WHO proposals would have made a difference in that case.  None of the “quick fix” solutions, in any event. 
But greater openness, more awareness of the issues, and a lessening of the stigma associated with suicide, would have helped me.  It would have helped me to support my friend while alive, and, as a mourner, it would have reduced that added burden, the burden of silence, knowing that nobody wants to talk about it.

So I do feel a sense of optimism that the issue is being addressed by the WHO at last.  I don’t think it will make a significant difference in our generation, but I feel hopeful that things will be different for our children.
Gwendolen Burton
1st year academic student Leo Baeck College

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.