Detroiter Michael Syme was a brilliant musician. He taught himself to play 20 instruments. He read in an ad that Frank Zappa was looking for a flutist, borrowed a flute and played so well he was noted in a Detroit Free Press review. He played guitar with John Lennon. Was a guitarist with Chairman of the Board.
Wanting to be a concert pianist like his older brother David, Michael borrowed a violin, taught himself to play and, at 20, won a full scholarship to a music academy in the South. But he became “disenchanted,” says his brother Danny, and dropped out He moved to Little Rock to play the fiddle with a country western band as a fiddler.
To hear Michael play, big brother Danny, then a suit-wearing rabbi, attended a performance at a “dive bar” in Little Rock. The band’s guitarist broke a string and stopped to fix it. To fill the time, Michael played the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. “The audience went crazy,” Danny recalls.
A love of music ran in the family. The boys’ father, Monte, was a cantor at 13; mother Sonia played piano and accompanied Monte in high school. Danny loved music, too, but fate took him in a different direction. At 20, he had testicular cancer and wasn’t expected to survive. When the tumor proved contained and was successfully removed, one of his surgeons said to him, “God saved you for a reason. In my opinion, you should become a rabbi.”
Though his father was a rabbi for a prominent Detroit congregation, Danny hadn’t wanted to follow in his dad’s hallowed footsteps. But he found himself saying, “Then I will.” He applied to rabbinical school and became a rabbi at 26.
At 21, Michael broke up with his girlfriend and moved back to Detroit. Danny, then a young rabbi in New York, returned to the D to visit. Michael said to him, “I’m coming back to Detroit to get my head together.”
“That sounds like a mature move,” Danny said.
Michael added, “I’ve never felt worse.”
That day Michael had visited a psychotherapist he’d seen before. That night, when Michael’s parents returned from services, they found their son dead in the garage, asphyxiated in their car.
“I’d just thought he was looking for attention,” Danny says. “No one talked about suicide in those days.” But not taking his brother’s last words more seriously proved “a mistake I’ve never forgiven myself for in 45 years”.
Ever since, Danny has devoted himself to suicide prevention. He often speaks to youth groups about the need to get help for depressed teens. “In most cases, kids tell someone they’re in pain and just want the pain to stop. They usually confide in a friend, almost never a parent or teacher or clergy member. They swear their friend to secrecy. That friend is usually torn between wanting to help and honoring their vow of silence.”
Danny quotes the Talmud (the body of Jewish law), “for one who saves a single soul, it is as though they’ve saved the whole world.”
Danny started Reach for Hope, a 3-day program that trains people in techniques for intervening in suicide ideation. Under the umbrella of Reach for Hope at JFS (Jewish Family Service), Danny’s recent session was the most diverse yet, attended, among others, by 2 psychologists who work with the LGBTQ community. Danny cites an almost 100% risk of suicide attempts by those who’ve had transgender surgery. He also says the 2nd leading cause of death among people 10-24 is suicide (the first: car accidents).
Common denominators: depression, chemical imbalance, dysfunctional families. Someone in the US commits suicide every 13 minutes, he says, including 20 vets a day.
A problem with depressed youth: Most hospitals won’t treat people under 18. In those cases, he recommends sending a kid to a clinic that prescribes medicine.
Danny says, when dealing with a depressed relative, families are advised “means limitation.” Locking up pills or guns that might be used “until equilibrium is restored.” The time in which someone decides to attempt suicide and carries it out: “usually under 10 minutes.” Danny adds someone with a gun in their house is twice as likely to die by suicide as someone without available pills or weapons.
Reach for Hope training in Detroit is led by Gigi Colombini, a “brilliant clinician” who’s focused her practice on suicide for almost 30 years. She started the Institute of Hope & Human Flourishing in Birmingham, MI.
In retrospect, what should Danny have done about his brother’s confession 45 years ago?
Having spent most of his adult life asking himself that question, he responds, “I should have called his therapist and taken him to the hospital.”
For others who hear an admission such as Michael’s, Danny advises the same. Although their friend might be angry with them, “Underneath they desperately hope someone will care enough to get them help. They may be angry at first. Ultimately they’ll be grateful, relieved to know someone is listening.”
Danny doesn’t know how many suicides his efforts have helped prevent. He only knows one thing: “People say if my brother was determined to end his life, he would have no matter what I did. But that’s an intellectual, not emotional, argument. For me, every time I intervene in a teenager’s ideation, it’s as if I’m saving my brother.”
Statistically, Danny says, someone in the U.S. dies by suicide every 11.8 minutes. “And that doesn’t include so called accidents like falling off a roof or dying in a car crash.”
My favorite Jewish prayer begins, “Grant us peace, your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth.”
Thanks for the insight, Danny, and for all the souls you’ve helped save. May God grant you, and all of us, that most precious gift.