Suicide and the Media


suicide-2By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Coverage of Jewish news should not just be about giving people news to satisfy their curiosity. From a Torah point of view, the media has social responsibilities to its constituency. The goal of the media should be to seek to improve the general good of society in all of its actions.

One social responsibility in which the media can play an important role is to assist mental health professionals in their task of informing the public of the seriousness of depression. If left untreated, depression can have very serious life-threatening repercussions. One might, therefore, make an argument that the media should report on suicides so that other people out there who have family members that are depressed – should make every effort to get help.

At times getting someone help involves extraordinary difficulties because that person does not want to get help. Some people think that it is easier to climb Mount Everest than to get someone to see a therapist. Yet, if they are vividly presented with the horrific consequences of not seeking help – they may perhaps try a little harder. This is one argument that is used to justify the coverage of a person having committed suicide.

The problem is that when the media does cover such tragedies the message of “Those suffering from depression should get help” is rarely, if ever, stressed. The warning signs for “how to spot depression” are rarely presented. And finally, the media does not end up providing resources that family members can reach out to in order to help their depressed relative.

Another argument against the media covering a suicide is the sheer embarrassment to the family that such coverage would create. Chazal (Sotah 10b) tell us that it is preferable to jump into a kivshan HoAish, a fiery furnace, than to embarrass someone. We learn this from Tamar who refused to name Yehudah as the father of her child. Embarrassing the family of a suicide victim is something that should not be taken lightly, even if one’s goal is to help others seek assistance for depression.

Instead of covering the tragedy of the completed suicide, the media would better accomplish its goals by reporting upon how to spot depression, a list of available mental health resources, and most importantly, providing a resource for how to get people to go to mental health professionals. This last point is crucial – there is a gaping hole in our system where people do not know where to turn.

But there is an even greater argument against the coverage of suicides.

“There is much evidence that media coverage of suicide particularly when it involves younger people, has a contagion effect,” said Dr. David Pelcovitz professor of Psychology and Education at Azrielli Graduate School of Yeshiva University. This is especially true with adolescents. It can also impact the children of adult suicides. This type of story must be handled very delicately – if at all.”

Indeed, the evidence is pretty overwhelming.


The Midrash (Aicha Rabasi 2:13) discusses a verse in Ovadiah (1:8) which refers to the wise sages of Edom. Clearly there is wisdom that can be gained from the outside world. This is particularly true in regard to the ideation of suicide. Let’s take a look at some history.

In 1774, two years before the America became a nation, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote an autobiographic novel in Leipzig, Germany. It was about a young man who fell in love but the affair ended. The protagonist in the book is so saddened that he takes his own life. The book became an instant bestseller and catapulted the young Goethe to instant fame.

The book did something else too. It soon became noticed that many young men in Germany, and soon, in countries where the book was translated, began committing suicide too. And they were dressed in the same clothing that the protagonist of Goethe’s book was wearing. The wave of suicides was termed “Werther Fever” after the protagonist in Goethe’s book. Very soon the book was banned.

In 1993, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article on the increased rate of suicide in New York City after the book “Final Exit” by Derik Humphry was published. After the Journal article was published there was no doubt. There is a phenomenon known as copycat suicides.

Chazal, in their remarkable wisdom, were well aware of this phenomenon thousands of years ago. Chazal put together certain safeguards in order to prevent the proliferation of “Werther Fever.” No burial in the regular part of a Jewish cemetery; no Kaddish; no Shivah. All these have (or had) the effect of reducing the incidence of copycat suicides.

In recent times, Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal ruled that those suffering from mental illness are not to be considered halachic suicides in these respects. It has been the policy of numerous Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva to purposefully obscure suicides whenever they occur as the cause of death. In this author’s view, this is a wise and correct policy.

The author can be reached at

{Five Towns Jewish Times/ Newscenter}


  1. The problem is that the nation as a whole stigmatizes all mental afflictions. It is a poor way to be if you wish to alienate and marginalize any person whose mind is not as organized or applicable to your daily life. I personally think that we need more mental health attention and more spending in this corridor of freedom. Maybe giving more psychiatrists media attention and national exposure will close the gap between the mentally unwell and the healthy persons. I think that we need more pop culture that deals with psychiatry, more books about psychiatry successes, more stories of the persons who have recovered and their stories as well as an increased discussion publically of the benefits of mental health care and treatment. This is necessary and the stigma of a mental illness must be absolved. There is no shame in an illness. Sadly, we are not ready for the future we wish to enjoy.

  2. I think the stigma of seeking therapy in the frum community is mostly a thing of the past. Most people will have no problem going to therapy. (Even though they won’t tell others of their treatment.)

    Also, yasher koach R. Hoffman for this article. Even though you’ve had wrongheaded views on previous issues, you are entirely correct here.