Private Pain, Shared Responsibility: Learning to Talk About Suicide With Neighbors and FriendsAlyssa Katz<http://www.nydailynews.com/authors?author=Alyssa-Katz> New York Daily News July 20, 2016
Are you thinking about killing yourself?
Pardon me for speaking so forwardly. It's my responsibility to ask that question and make sure you're OK, or get the professional help you need.
Of all the lessons I learned in a day spent last week getting certified in Mental Health First Aid, in a New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene classroom energized by eager and empathic facilitators and trainees, this one hit home most powerfully: that intervention, even by a barely trained layperson, can deter suicide.
I signed up after a neighbor living one flight below me in Midwood, Brooklyn, jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Rebecca was just 28, her crackling nervous energy and candor in life masking a calling to death that in retrospect is surprising only in ignorance.
Just a week later, a second neighbor died too young. Like Rebecca, she was an Orthodox Jew. Her body lingered for days in bed until the odor brought our doorman in, through a window, to investigate. He found her on Shabbat , the afternoon the world lost Elie Wiesel - the very emblem of Jewish survival against adversity.
Religious custom precluded an autopsy and toxicology. But she had borne the pain from a car crash, making it possible prescription opioids contributed to her demise. Like all of us in our wing of the building, she had been reeling from our first neighbor's unfathomable act.
Dwelling on two thoughts helped me absorb the shock of losing a second neighbor after the shock of the first. One, resentment that Wiesel had survived genocide only so his people had the freedom to end their own lives. And two, that there must have been something those living close could have done, as more than strangers and less than family.
Mental Health First Aid, part of city First Lady Chirlane McCray's ThriveNYC initiative, proposes that indeed we can, which is how I came to stare into the eyes of a social work student and pose the - yes, it's really hard to ask - are-you-thinking-about-suicide question.
It has to be asked. While no one was watching , in 2010 the city's suicide rate began a sickening rise after a steady fall, and now, at 6.7 per 100,000 annually, has surpassed homicides in deadliness.
McCray, spending $5 million in city funds, wants 250,000 New Yorkers to know what I now do - how to recognize the signs of depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol problems, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and respond supportively.
Congress has bought in to the concept too, committing $15 million nationally in this year's budget. Unquestionably, and studies show this, trainees feel more confident in their own ability to help people in distress.
Whether Mental Health First Aid - developed in Australia, and trademarked in the U.S. by the National Council for Behavioral Health - actually alters lives' course is a question still under examination. Because life, and the everyday interactions it's made of, is not a controlled experiment.
In fact, a University of Michigan survey of 32 U.S. colleges where dorm resident advisers get the training found that while the RAs felt better about themselves, students were no more likely to use campus mental health services than those whose RAs had no exposure to the training.
That's a rebuke to McCray's very inspiration for bringing Mental Health First Aid to New York, her daughter Chiara's struggles with drugs, alcohol, anxiety and depression as a college student in California.
Yet New York contains multitudes, including a great many for whom seeking aid for troubles of the mind is a concept foreign to their culture.
Like many of Brooklyn's Orthodox Jews. Central to the faith, I've learned in a decade living in Midwood as a far less observant co-religionist, is acceptance that events on Earth, no matter how hellish, fit into the Almighty's design, to be embellished but never altered in course by His human creations.
That stoic attitude helps the community survive unimaginable misfortune - just watch the heartbreaking videos of grieving Gabriel Sassoon, who lost seven children in a Midwood house fire for want of a smoke detector.
Good came out of that tragedy: Local leaders handed out smoke detectors by the hundreds and spread the word of safety.
The loss of two more of our neighbors, by contrast, prompted a stern note posted on my lobby bulletin board urging against " lashon hora ," or the spreading of gossip, which this column surely commits.
There is no swaying those determined to stifle discussion about the dead and how they got there. But one by one - and this is true within every culture and community in the city, from the most traditional to the most smugly cosmopolitan - those conversations must happen, and the hands must reach out to help.