mental health

13 Reasons Why and What We Should Do About It 

We love spending time with the children of our congregation, and in doing so we learn so much about them – their needs, their wishes and of course the world they look to navigate each day. In building a safe, nurturing place at our synagogue where they feel safe communicating,  we often hear what they are watching, reading and talking about with their peers. Because of this, it has recently come to our attention that the Netflix original series entitled 13 Reasons Why (based on a popular novel by Jay Asher, 2007) is being watched and certainly discussed by many of our junior and high school students. We have also discovered this show is on the radar of the younger siblings of our preteens and teens. We are concerned about their developmental maturity necessary in viewing and digesting the intense nature of this program.

We felt it important to provide resources and support for our families and their teens and preteens. We know that other communities are addressing this issue too, and so we wanted to share some resources in case they’re helpful to others as well.

The series revolves around 17-year old Hannah Baker, who takes her own life and leaves behind audio recordings for 13 people who she says in some way were part of why she killed herself. The series graphically depicts a suicide death and addresses in wrenching detail difficult topics ranging from bullying, starting rumors, sharing compromising social media images, shaming, failing to be an “upstander”, sexual assault, drunk driving, drug use and not noticing the warning signs of impending suicide, or seeking adult help and intervention.

Mental health experts are torn; some suggest that that the show could pose health risks for young people who have suicidal thoughts, exposes viewers to multiple traumas and that it romanticizes the idea of suicide. Others suggest the show provides a valuable opportunity to discuss suicide risk with young people, as well as teaching them how to identify the warning signs of depression or suicidal thoughts among their peers.

The show is rated TV-MA, meaning the series may contain intensely suggestive dialogue, strong coarse language, intense sexual situations, or intense violence, which it does! But only parents can determine if the show is appropriate for their child. We recommend that parents view it for themselves, or watch alongside their children, but most certainly engage in dialogue with them about what they are feeling and thinking as they digest each episode. As articulated by the National Association of School Psychologists, this show might be an opportunity to better understand children’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. But they will need supportive, understanding and caring adults to process it. Below are number of resources to aid parents and communities in that goal:

  1. National Association of School Psychologists’ Guidance for educators
  2. 13 Reasons Tip Sheet from and the JED Foundation
  3. Beyond the Reasons: (Also on Netflix) This 30 minute follow up to the series interviews the cast, producers and mental health professionals to discuss scenes dealing with the difficult issues.
  4. Suicide Prevention Lifeline:  or call 1-800-273-TALK
  5. A really helpful article for parents with great tips/advice if they are watching together!
  6. Psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz speaks about the danger of 13 Reasons Why.

Most importantly, we should let our communities and congregations know that we are here for them and their children. Sometimes these topics (and realities for some of our teens) are too painful and embarrassing to discuss with their parents. Educators recommend that parents remind their children to seek out connections and relationships with other adults. We can be those adults.

Our tradition affirms life and celebrates hope. Rabbi Gedalyahu Schorr teaches, “Just as the hurts from our past leave an imprint on our souls, all the joys from our future leave an imprint on our souls.” The pain, the trauma, and the darkness we experience along life’s journey may shake us, and scar us, and may even make it hard to find the courage to begin again. But our future joys are inscribed on our souls, too. Let us help those around us – most especially our young people seek the beauty waiting for them around the next bend, help them discover new opportunities that will bring light into their world, aid them in embracing more confidence, more light and more hope.

Rabbi David Gelfand and Rabbi Melissa Buyer serve Temple Israel of the City of New York. 

Rabbis Reform Judaism

Suicide Survivors Day – November 21

I have a message to share with my colleagues that emerges out of my recent experience. My wife’s father, tragically, took his own life seven short months ago. It was one of those scenarios where we knew he was struggling with anxiety and depression, and yet never in a million years would we have expected that he would have taken his own life.

Since that time, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined about suicide ideation, suicide prevention, and suicide survivors. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that in 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available from the CDC) 41,149 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. My father-in-law was in the group with the highest suicide rate in the country: adult men ages 45-75.

We can say a lot about the need suicide prevention programs for people of all ages. Though today I want to share a different perspective.

We tend to overlook the survivors of suicide.

For us and our colleagues, we are very familiar with the grieving process and how important it is for people to have a safe place to turn to for comfort and solace. My experience as a husband and son-in-law is that survivors of suicide are forgotten or we don’t know what to do with them. Their grief is so strikingly different than that of other mourners. It is more complicated because it is also layered with trauma, guilt and even shame. As a result, their journeys through a mourning process are often marked by feelings of isolation. They feel insecure or ashamed to share their pain openly because of the stigma of suicide and mental illness. Many often ask “well-intentioned” but hurtful questions such as: “did you see this coming,” “did he show any signs,” “how did he do it” – questions that plague survivors of suicide. Sometimes the isolation is a result of not knowing other survivors who have been through similar storms (it is even more isolating since many keep their pain to themselves).

The US Congress designated the Saturday before the American Thanksgiving as “National Survivors of Suicide Day.” Senator Harry Reid, a survivor of his father’s 1972 suicide, introduced the resolution in the Senate in 1999. This is an opportunity for us to acknowledge survivors’ unique trauma, pain, and grief.

As rabbis, we are in the unique position to reach out and accompany others where they are. I see this as so important because the survivors of suicide in our congregations often don’t feel strong enough or safe enough to enter our communities to seek support.

Before this more personal loss, I, too, have encountered numerous people during my rabbinate who have lost loved ones to suicide. While I have tried to be present for them, I have often found that, for a number of reasons, they did not want or were not ready to engage with me as their rabbi. Reflecting back, I don’t think I was able to appreciate at the time how great aspects of trauma and isolation were to those families. Perhaps it is because mental illness and suicide carry such heavy stigma. Could it be that our survivors need to live with feelings of guilt for not “seeing it,” shame for “missing it,” sadness for the loss, and anger that someone would make such a “choice.”

In 1 Kings 18 and 19, Elijah has a tremendous success in his fight against the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. However, Jezebel is relentless in her opposition to Elijah and threatens to kill him despite his victory. Elijah, in turn, feels defeated. He can’t see how his efforts were valuable and asks God to take his life. (19:4) In verses 5-8, we see that God sends an angel to be present for him, to nourish him, and to help him find his strength to carry on.

I am no expert in trauma, nor in survivorship. But through my personal encounter with them as I journey with my wife as a survivor of suicide, I see that we need more angels in the world who can respond to these survivors as Elijah’s angel did. With that said, I think these angels are present – they are us and our congregants who can step forward, be present, without platitudes or judgment, and accompany our survivors of suicide to safe places in our synagogue communities.

Rabbi Fred Greene serves Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, CO.