Starting the conversation is key to suicide prevention | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Starting the conversation is key to suicide prevention


Did you know that there are roughly one million suicide attempts a year in the United States, with one suicide every 13 minutes?

Or that in Wisconsin, one person dies by suicide every 11 hours? Or, that over four times as many people in our state die annually by suicide than by homicide?

Chances are you don’t, because suicide isn’t a topic that’s often discussed – especially in the Jewish community. But synagogues and community organizations can play a vital role in talking about suicide and creating a supportive environment where members of the Jewish community feel safe to bring up their mental health concerns.

Aaron Heffernan

Aaron Heffernan

So let me share some information to start this discussion. In Wisconsin, suicide is the tenth most common cause of death, and the second leading cause of death in 15-24 year olds. According to an April 2016 Center for Disease Control update on suicide, “From 1999 through 2014, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States increased 24 percent … with the pace of increase greater after 2006.”

This report goes on to point out that “the percent increase in suicide rates for females was greatest for those aged 10–14, and for males, those aged 45–64.” At least 50 percent of suicides are caused by firearms already in the home, and increasingly easy access to prescription painkillers is also seen as a cause for rising suicide rates.

Suicide is complex and caused by many factors. We know that it most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition. Research has consistently shown a strong link between suicide and depression, with 90 percent of the people who die by suicide having an existing mental illness or substance abuse problem at the time of their death. And when you consider that mental illness affects roughly half of all Americans over their lifetimes, it becomes even more evident that we, as a community, need to talk about suicide and the emotional/mental health issues underlying it.

Ending stigma

We have to start the conversation. We have to work together to end the stigma towards persons with mental illness, and negative perceptions often fostered around those who have survived suicide attempts. And that begins with educating people about mental / emotional health and sharing stories of persons living with mental illness (“lived experience”). Mental illness can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, income, social status, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or any other aspect of cultural identity. Unfortunately, far too often people don’t get the help they need. In fact, in Wisconsin roughly half of all adults and children with a mental health condition don’t seek treatment or get the intervention they need. And their primary barrier to getting help? Stigma.

People with mental illness represent, perhaps, one of the most deeply stigmatized groups in American culture. Many report that the stigma of mental illness, and the prejudices they encounter because of it, is nearly as bad as the disorder’s symptoms themselves. In fact, many of the over 46 million Americans who suffer from some type of mental health issue describe this stigma using words such as: hate, discrimination, prejudice, fear inducing, humiliating and hurtful.

Imagine for a minute that you have breast cancer. Now imagine that instead of people wearing pink ribbons or NFL players wearing pink cleats to show support and raise awareness of your illness, society shuns you. Imagine others whispering about you behind your back when they find out you have breast cancer. Imagine not getting proper medical treatment because you’re afraid you’ll lose your job if anyone finds out about it.

This is the kind of stigma many people struggling with mental illness face daily. But they shouldn’t. Mental illness is a disease just like cancer, or heart disease or diabetes. It is a fact of life for so many people – and these people may be your neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members ­– who suffer in silence because of the stigma.

Sure, some may feel a bit uncomfortable talking about mental illness. But this is the first step in stopping the stigma and can be a critical starting point for intervention. Similarly, talking about suicide can be anxiety-provoking, but opening the dialogue provides great insight into this public health issue and, most importantly, can save a life.

Suicide prevention

We can work together to help those who are suffering get the right treatment. “One of the biggest steps we all can take to prevent suicide is to talk about it, and reach out to persons experiencing emotional distress, mental illness and who are affected by suicide. We need to make space for this conversation, and right here within our community – our Jewish community – is an optimal place to start,” explains Barbara Moser, Chair of the Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee Coalition.

“Synagogues are a safe place for most people, a place where they feel a sense of belonging and connectedness. Which is why mitzvahs such as encouraging paths of kindness within our congregations and reaching out one-on-one to those we know or believe are suffering from emotional distress, mental illness and/or substance abuse issues can make such a huge impact.”

“Synagogues can offer education and resource materials, and rabbinical staff can host and encourage members to participate in trainings such as QPR-Question Persuade Refer,” Moser said. “QPR training teaches the key skills needed to prevent a suicide and is intended for everyone; no particular prior knowledge is needed. Rabbis can also hold forums where they can work to normalize the conversation around these issues and help alleviate the stigma families who deal with suicide may face within their congregation. Anything we can do to help people who are suffering emotionally is suicide prevention in my book.”

Here are two important points for all of us to remember: People are suicidal for short periods of time. And recovery is the rule. Knowing this, imagine the impact you can make by just being there for someone. Asking them how they’re doing. Checking on them whenever you can. Providing resources for and encouraging professional help. Doing whatever you can to offer hope and let them know you care. Working together we can take action to prevent suicide. We can make a difference. And that starts with talking. So, do what you can to start the conversation.

Aaron Heffernan is a psychotherapist with Jewish Family Services. He is a licensed clinical social worker with a master’s degree in social work.

* * *

About suicide

September is suicide prevention month.

Resource guide

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:


Request aQuestion, Persuade and Refer” training for your synagogue or other organization at

Warning signs of suicide

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live

Risk of suicide

Other behaviors may also indicate a serious risk — especially if the behavior is new; has increased; and/or seems related to a painful event, loss or change.

  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

Source: Aaron Heffernan