Who Shall be at Peace and Who Shall be Tormented?

Increased Rates of Suicide in Adolescent GirlsIt’s a Jewish Issue

image005By Stephanie Blumenkranz and Miriam Libove

The research is as startling as it is upsetting. The World Health Organization’s 2014 report, “Health for the World’s Adolescents,” included the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death among 15-19 year-olds around the world. The statistic was buried in the report, which is why it didn’t hit media outlets until June of 2015.

In April 2016, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on U.S. suicide statistics. While suicide rates were increasing in all age groups, the 10-14 year-old female cohort experienced the largest percentage increase, tripling over the last 15 years.

The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY) considered it critical to promote awareness of this timely and important topic. On September 14th, JWFNY brought together donors, friends, grantees, and community partners to learn ways to improve the mental health of adolescent girls. We were joined by experts in the field, Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, the President and CEO of Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, and Joanne Harpel, MPhil, JD, the President and CEO of Rethink the Conversation.

Jeffrey pointed out that over 10% of adolescents will experience depression, and girls are significantly more likely than boys to be diagnosed with mood disorders. He advised to be on the lookout for signs of depression, some of which may include: tiredness, hopelessness, irritability, poor school performance, trouble concentrating, and low self-esteem. Jeffrey also described how quality time with family and friends can help promote positive mental health for an adolescent, and also help identify potential problems.

This notion of wellness starting at home is in alignment with Joanne Harpel’s assertion that mental health is a women’s issue.  She referred to women as “gatekeepers,” who have historically “led the charge in all areas of mental health.”  As mothers whose lives are often intertwined with their children’s, women are most likely to notice when something is amiss, and are in a position to provide early intervention if needed.

Joanne, herself a sibling of someone who died by suicide, also shared why this is a Jewish issue. She pointed out that Jewish tradition has influenced our attitudes about mental illness and suicide. Quoting a verse from the Unatana Tokef in the Yom Kippur service, “Who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented,” Joanne asserted that there is precedence in Jewish tradition for conversations about this topic. This reference to emotional turmoil in the Yom Kippur liturgy, juxtaposed with verses like, “Who shall perish by water and who by fire,” shows that anguish was not taken lightly by the ancient rabbis. By extension, she suggested that clergy should encourage congregants to name people who are suffering from depression and related distress when they recite the “Mi sh’beirach,” prayer for healing.

While the subject matter of Wednesday’s event was serious, the event itself was uplifting. There was a sense of admiration in the room for the way that Joanne had transformed a personal tragedy into an opportunity to educate and make change. There was also a sense of hope as the audience took in Jeffrey’s recommendations for prevention. Participants left armed with knowledge and tools about ways they could make changes in their own lives and promote awareness in the Jewish community. Most importantly, we learned that together we can save lives.

The video recording of the event can be found on our Vimeo page.

Stephanie Blumenkranz is Assistant Director and Miriam Libove is Operations Facilitator at Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York.