Yesterday I performed the Mitzvah of Nichum Avelim–Hebrew for the commandment to comfort the bereaved. A family that played a significant role in one of my previous congregations lost a son and grandson who was active duty in the military. Although I only barely remember the young man (I left that community 17 years ago), I felt I needed to be there for the family; Jewish tradition says that we do not really have a choice but are commanded to be there for others.
On the way to the funeral I was listening to NPR and there was an hour-long discussion about suicide. (This was not the cause of death.) As a member of the clergy, there was not a whole lot that I had not heard before, but still it was a great segment and a good reminder.
Much of the program dealt with what to do when we hear/see/sense something wrong with a friend. What are we supposed to do? What should we say? In a number of different ways, they spoke about how one of the most important things we can do is let the other person know they are not alone, that there are others going through the same thing as well, and that there are places to get help. They all emphasized how significant it is for those who are having suicidal thoughts to feel connected to others.
They also talked about a kind of systemic change that needs to occur. We still place too much of a stigma on mental health. Our healthcare system does not always provide health insurance or treatment parity with physical illnesses. This means that open discussions about how friends, family, co-workers, etc., are doing do not take place often enough. We can begin to create change in our own families, places of work, school, by encouraging those conversations–checking in on others even when they don’t seem to be distressed. Sometimes those with mental illness are very good at disguising their distress, and all it takes is making the effort to connect.
I know that I will try this myself. The more we make conversations about mental health no different than those about physical health, the more likely we are to create situations in which those needed help will comfortable to seek it.
The funeral I attended was not a suicide, but was tragic nonetheless. I cannot imagine what the family is going through. I hope my presence made some difference. As we rethink mental illness, we can all make a difference.
This was not the segment, but still very helpful: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/20/707686101/reach-out-ways-to-help-a-loved-one-at-risk-of-suicide