The moment is etched into Shalom Hammer’s mind. As they pulled up at the hospital, his wife Gabi said: “Brace yourself, I’m telling you that Gila isn’t alive and we’re about to be asked if we want to donate her organs.”
She wasn’t speaking based on information, but rather intuition as the mother of 18-year-old Gila, who had been facing serious mental health challenges since being sexually assaulted two years earlier. Tragically, she was right — Gila had died by suicide.
Very soon, Hammer was living with “constant feelings of devastation.” He decided to repurpose his skills as a rabbi and educator to advance suicide prevention awareness. From schools to prisons, army bases to synagogues, he is continuously lecturing and presenting workshops.
An American-born Israeli, he presents in both English and Hebrew, as does British-born Gabi, for the occasional event she takes part in. Hammer averages 300 addresses a year.
Three years later, he is a tireless warrior for mental health and suicide awareness. On Tuesday he will urge the Knesset to adopt steps that he is convinced could avert many tragedies like Gila’s.
“I started speaking three days after the shiva [mourning period], and it has just snowballed as I have recognized the enormous need,” he told The Times of Israel in an emotional hour-long interview. “People need to hear family members talk, who will say clearly, without euphemisms, ‘My loved one died from suicide,’ and discuss the topic.”
He is haunted by how easy it can be, even for mental health professionals, to miss signs or fail to take the correct steps when a teenager is at serious risk. “Gila saw her psychiatrist on the day she died,” he recounted. “Gila was in a very, very bad way, but the psychiatrist sent her home on the bus by herself and never spoke to us.
“As far as we know she didn’t talk to Gila or to us about suicide, which is a mistake, as while some people assume the topic shouldn’t be broached as it can ‘give people ideas,’ the opposite is actually true — discussing it can be preventative.”
And that is the core of Hammer’s work, which now takes place under the non-profit Gila’s Way: He wants to bring talk of suicide further into the open. “Some people still avoid the word, just as we used to try to avoid uttering the word ‘cancer,’ which is futile,” he said.
“I use the word suicide constantly — it must be used. Only then do people start to understand it, and appreciate that we’re talking about something that isn’t a failing of someone, but rather a symptom of mental illness. And it’s something that many, many people think about.”
The four proposals that Hammer will make to lawmakers on Tuesday all advance this message. The first will be a call for all psychiatric institutions to display posters listing signs that indicate someone is at a high suicide risk, and to offer copies to caregivers. The second proposal will be for billboards telling the public it’s “okay not to be okay,” and publicizing details of mental health helplines, as well as funding billboards recruiting volunteers for such helplines.
I use the word suicide constantly — it must be used. Only then do people start to understand it, and appreciate that we’re talking about something that isn’t a failing of someone, but rather a symptom of mental illness
The third proposal is for suicide prevention seminars in schools, youth groups, the army and pre-military academies, where Hammer says the most vulnerable age groups are found. And the fourth suggested innovation is that on World Suicide Prevention Day each September 10, government institutions and schools should invite a speaker from a family bereaved by suicide.
When people hear Hammer, an Orthodox rabbi, talking about suicide, they often ask about the traditional classification of suicide as a violation of Jewish law, and the associated practice of burying people who died by suicide in a separate section of the cemetery. His answer is straightforward: Those traditions came from ignorance.
“The rabbis of old did not understand mental health,” he said. “They weren’t as sophisticated in this realm as we are today. Now, we know that the majority of people who die from suicide, they’re not doing it because they want to die. They find themselves in a deep dark place of despair, especially kids. They don’t know what to do with themselves. They want to continue to live but don’t know how to do so with their inner pain, which prompts them to explore the avenue of suicide.”
“And so no, today people who die from suicide are not buried outside of a cemetery. They’re not excluded. They die from an illness, a mental illness, just like anyone else, God forbid, dies from a regular illness, from a physical illness.”
This contemporary understanding of suicide must also inform the language we use to discuss it, he said. The verb “committing” is no longer used in relation to suicide, as it is generally reserved to refer to crimes.
In Gila’s case, as with many teen suicides, trauma started a demise in her mental health. She was age 16, a “gorgeous child, leader of her social peers, and a prankster who loved to laugh,” when everything changed.
“Gila was at a Purim party with a bunch of friends, and a young man who she didn’t really know locked her in a room and assaulted her for quite some time,” Hammer said.
“As parents we realized afterward that there was something going on. At first you assume that the change of behavior is just your teenager being rebellious. But then… about a year later, it started to spiral out of control. She told two of her siblings what had happened, wrote about it in her diary, and eventually she told us, her parents.”
We need to understand that there is a problem in Israel, stemming from the huge amount of responsibility given to teenagers
He wishes the time lag before he found out was shorter, so that he could have provided professional help sooner. As he sees it, Israeli culture expects teenagers to act very maturely — sometimes too maturely — and this prevented disclosure to adults of the deep trauma that Gila had suffered.
“Her teenage friends didn’t see a need to tell adults what had happened,” he said. “I emphasize that I don’t blame them in any way — they acted exactly as our society expects them to. But we need to understand that there is a problem in Israel, stemming from the huge amount of responsibility given to teenagers.
“They didn’t want to breach the trust they felt Gila had put in them by sharing about the attack. Our teenagers are told they are capable of overcoming insurmountable odds, that they’re able to conquer anything and leap a tall building in a single bound. And the problem is that we forget to remind our youth that there are limits to what one can deal with as a teenager, and sometimes it is necessary to involve adults.”
Asked what message Hammer wants audiences to walk away with when he speaks, he says: “The majority of people who die from suicide do not want to die. And that means that if we can give them a glimpse of light, a shimmer of hope, some reason to continue, we have the potential to save lives.
“Next up, it is so important for us to be aware of our surroundings and to be able to ask people when we see that they look a little different. Asking a question of ‘How are you today?’ Or: ‘I noticed lately you’ve been looking down, how can I help you?’ Perhaps: ‘You look like you might be having difficulties over the last period of time.’ Those statements and questions can make the difference in saving a person’s life because you’re throwing them a lifeline that says, ‘I care about you.’”
Ultimately, he wants people to get better at reading the signs of suicide risk, and realize that teenagers will often fail to express suicidal ideations.
“The problem is that Gila ultimately had a hard time expressing herself, as do many teens and adolescents,” he said. “And so what happens with someone who’s suffering from mental health is they will typically express themselves in other ways. And those ways of expression are things that we need to learn.
“So for example, self-harming; for example, isolating themselves socially; for example, relying heavily on their phone for friendship, which obviously doesn’t work. There may be feelings of guilt or expressions of guilt. These are things that are essentially a person shouting out: ‘I am not functioning in the world around me, try to save me and get me to a better place where I can get back to that world that I long for.’”
Information on Gila’s Way can be found at www.gilasway.com. Readers in Israel who have been affected by issues raised in this article are informed that all healthcare providers (HMOs) offer a range of services related to mental health, as do various nonprofits including Eran, the organization dedicated to “emotional first aid.” Details of Eran’s hotline are found here.