Supporting Teens on the Edge

Written by Suzanne Pollak on . Posted in Features

You are not alone.

This is the message Rabbi Greg Harris of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland, believes everyone should hear, especially after the recent suicides of two local teens. Family and friends may never know what led Jordana “JoJo” Greenberg and Thomas “Tommy” Silva to take their own lives, but the deaths of these two 16-year-olds touched the lives of many: from loved ones, to classmates who didn’t know them, to parents who wonder whether their own child might be grappling with the same dark thoughts.

 

Rabbi Harris is part of an interfaith clergy group that is holding services and community meetings following the deaths of Greenberg on Nov. 27 and Silva on Dec. 3. Although he didn’t know either teen, since learning of the tragedies he has spoken twice from the bimah (podium) to break a taboo that he believes causes people to stay silent about the depression plaguing themselves or a loved one.

“It’s incumbent upon people to ask for help and for others to hear them,” Rabbi Harris said.

Greenberg’s parents, Sonya Spielberg and Jonathan Greenberg, and sister, Carina Rose, described JoJo in her obituary as “a vivacious, loving, and warm ray of sunshine, who brightened the lives of all she touched.”

Greenberg attended Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. She enjoyed acting, painting, volleyball, animal rights, and yoga, and had worked in a hair salon. While others knew of her infectious joy, she “fought a hard battle against depression for years,” according to her obituary.

Silva was a member of both the wrestling team and the gaming club at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. He was active in scouting and was working toward the rank of Eagle Scout. He loved camping, hiking, and fishing. He is survived by his mother, Patricia Silva, of Rockville.

“Suicide, depression, and anxiety are still taboo issues,” although less so than they were 10 to 15 years ago, said Heidi Cohen, a licensed certified clinical social worker. Cohen is a clinical team leader in mental health for the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA). She joined the Dec. 11 community-wide interfaith event at Congregation Beth El to provide guidance and answer questions about depression, suicide, grief, and support.

“Many factors can cause a young person to feel overwhelmed and see no future for themselves; from bullying, in person and on social media, to pressure to get good grades and be admitted to the right college,” said Cohen. “Being on social media all day and seeing how happy, popular, and successful their friends are can cause teenagers to think everyone is enjoying life more than they are. When that happens to people struggling with mental health issues, it can deepen their depression.”

It’s important for everyone to be proactive, she said. Even if children seem happy and never knew the teen in their school who died by suicide, they were probably still affected by it. “Kids have such imagination,” she said.

“My number one message is talk to your kids. Don’t show any judgements. The only way we are going to take away the stigma is to talk.”

Watching for Signs

While Jewish law prohibits taking one’s own life, suicide is widely understood to be a result of mental illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2015 for people ages 15-24, claiming the lives of 5,491 young people. (The leading cause of death, at 12,514, was unintentional injury.)

This number doesn’t fully capture the scope of suicide among teens and young adults, however. Some deaths are incorrectly listed as accidental or drug overdoses. Additionally, according to the CDC, more young people actually survive an attempted suicide than don’t, further distorting the perceived scale of the problem.

Susan Rosenstock watched as her son, Evan, went from an effervescent young man to another teen suicide statistic. The Winston Churchill High School basketball star injured his back and had to step away from basketball and varsity athletics, his passions. No longer able to identify as an athlete, he began treatment for depression. He took his own life in 2013; he was 16 years old.

Since his death by suicide, his mother has held fundraisers, spoken at schools and community meetings, and operates the website UMTTR.org (You Matter) for anyone in distress to learn where to go for support.

When Rosenstock heard about the recent deaths by suicide, she said, “I think about the parents, the friends. I feel terrible. It’s just sad.”

Peers can play an important role in reducing the number of suicides, she said. “Friends are more likely to notice signs that parents don’t see or are reluctant to grasp.”

Stacey Meadows, LCSW-C, manager of child therapy services at Jewish Community Services in Baltimore, pointed out some common warning signs of children considering suicide, including sudden changes in personality, distancing or disengagement from activities or people that once were valued, giving away important or meaningful personal items, changes in eating or sleeping habits, and changes in moods. Other indicators include writing goodbye letters and researching ways to self-harm or die by suicide.

Sometimes, signs can be hard to recognize. Hormone changes in adolescence contribute to emotional volatility, and as children age, they become more independent and more likely to keep thoughts and activities from their parents.

If people have concerns about someone, Meadows recommends they talk to the person, “and if necessary, seek professional help. One of the strongest supportive factors [factors that reduce risk] is connection to others,” she said. “It’s better to seek help for someone who doesn’t need it than to neglect the need and lose a friend to suicide,” she stressed.

Two months ago, Montgomery County launched “BTheOne.” It’s a local version of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s “#BeThe1To” public education campaign, which is designed to curb teen suicide and drug abuse. Posters at bus shelters, public service announcements, and a website let people know where they can get help. The county also has a 24-hour crisis center that can be reached by calling 240-777-4000.

Additional local resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255 or text the word ANSWER), EveryMind (301-738-2255), Washington D.C. Access Hot Line (1-888-793-4357), and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org).

By Suzanne Pollak

 Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.