Broaching the subjects of suicide or depression with a loved one can be a difficult task. But on Wednesday night, Chizuk Amuno congregants and community members filled the Esterson Auditorium to learn about strategies of compassion and understanding for those who need a helping hand.
Chizuk Amuno’s Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg, though not a health care professional himself, opened the discussion with some thoughts about the specific importance of such a panel to Jewish communities, summing up the impetus for the evening.
“If, as a religion, as a Jewish community, we are to remain relevant in modern, changing, times, we need to have appropriate and meaningful and connective responses to all of the most wonderful and difficult moments that occur in somebody’s lifetime,” Gruenberg said. “But unfortunately, for a long time in our Jewish communities, around the issue of suicide, we not only didn’t have a meaningful, relevant response, we actually sort of brushed it under the rug.” When identifying and caring for those with depression and suicidal thoughts, he said, the key is “to bring them in, to pull them closer, to connect to them.”
The audience was treated to a panel that included Kat Olbrich, the Maryland director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Stacy Meadows, a supervisor for therapy services with Jewish Community Services; Howard Reznick, the manager for prevention education for JCS; and Rachel Abrams, a clinician and grief counselor for JCS.
The rabbi’s sentiments were echoed by each of the panelists. Olbrich spoke about the importance of language when it comes to discussing suicide with those struggling with depression, and urged the audience to approach it as “a health issue.” Audience members audibly gasped as Olbrich shared statistics on suicide in the U.S. and around the world. For example, 44,965 Americans die by suicide every year, which equates to about 123 suicides every day.
Meadows, a University of Maryland graduate, talked about the importance of erasing the stigmas around discussing personal difficulties. She relayed an anecdote about a close friend of hers who, after spending no more than 15 minutes discussing his recent troubles, apologized for burdening her. Meadows said that she wondered what would cause a close friend of hers to feel as if he needed to apologize for speaking about his own travails. “We perpetuate this idea of burden,” she said, “when we say, ‘It’s not ok to be bad. Don’t tell me the stuff that’s hard. I only want the good parts.’”
Resnick, speaking specifically about dealing with depression in teenagers, addressed the parents in the audience. “We do not control our kids,” he said, “as much as we would love to.” To breach that divide, he said, parents and trusted adults need to find ways to meet their children where they are, and to provide them with opportunities to find the people and activities that affirm them as being worthy of love and compassion.
Abrams’ discussion switched gears a little bit, as she discussed her work with those whose loved ones have already died by suicide. Her work, she said, was not to encourage people to “let go” of the people they’ve lost, but rather to acclimate themselves to their absence (a key distinction, in her view).
Following the remarks from the individual panelists, anonymous questions submitted by the audience were discussed by the panel, on topics ranging from Jewish practices regarding suicide to the grieving process.
Ruth Brown, a Chizuk Amuno congregant, found the discussion to be informative and encouraging. “The speakers were so knowledgable,” she said.
Jonathan Carter, a community member, felt the same way. “It shows that the community realizes it’s an important topic.”
“We in the Jewish community need a meaningful response to this,” Gruenberg told the audience early in the evening. “Tonight is a meaningful response.”