*content warning: discussion of mental illness/suicide*
This past week I saw, on Facebook and elsewhere, a sudden influx of posts about Robin Williams, who died by suicide four years ago. I think for many people in my own life, particularly my peers in age-terms, Williams’ death was a tremendous eye-opener about the danger of serious mental health issues. It should not have been a revelation though considering what a disastrously large role it plays in our society.
Last year, in the UK alone, over 6,000 people died by suicide. I say ‘died by suicide,’ because to say ‘committed suicide’ is to adopt the language of criminality. To ‘commit’ a crime is to be a perpetrator of violence, but to die by suicide is to be a victim of violence. Of those, 3-5 times as many men died as women, with the largest cohort being men between the ages of 40 and 44. It may seem that a discussion of suicide should be independent of talking about mental health- but it is primary. Samaritans, who do leading work in suicide-prevention, suggest that at least 90% of those who die by suicide have struggled with mental health previously, and only 45% have a diagnosis of a mental health condition.
That means that a critical part of the work that we must do to prevent deaths is to enhance the care we can offer for mental health. For too long, mental illness has been ignored because it is invisible. As the numbers sadly demonstrate, mental illness is not just an inconvenience or an unfortunate reality– it is a killer. Suicide remains the number one cause of death for people between 20 and 34. Clearly it would be absurd to suggest that we can ignore the complex health needs that lead to such data.
Thankfully, in my own life time, I have begin to witness a sea-change around mental health. To the benefit of all
people, we are finally starting to discuss mental health as a public health issue and a policy priority. Yet, there’s much more work to be done. I believe that the Jewish community can and should lead on both care and advocacy around these issues, and here in the UK I’ve been very impressed with the work that Jami
does in both providing care and resources and raising awareness within Jewish communities.
To that end, I’m happy to say that SAMS will be a Jami ‘community partner’ for this upcoming year. That means that mental health will be at the forefront of our agenda, and we’ll be doing our best to make it a priority for our community. If you have any thoughts or ideas about how to help this effort, please share them. In particular, we’re looking for someone to be a ‘Jami Ambassador’ to help lead this work at SAMS. If you think that might be you, let me know, or see the weekly email for more information.
We’ll also be participating in Head On (Mental Health Awareness Shabbat) on 11 and 12 January and trying to incorporate the theme into programmes throughout the year. Obviously we have to go far beyond talking, but considering the stigmas that still surround mental health, talking is the best place to start. I’m glad that we can bring this important work into our community, and I hope that together we can begin to adopt a new and better discussion around mental health, one that can help those in need, and quite literally, save lives.
*If you or someone you know is demonstrating signs of being at risk for suicide, do not hesitate to get help. In an emergency, contact 999 or Samaritans, who offer a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week support service. Call them free on 116 123.*