Local mental health professionals and volunteers talk about the need to rid the Jewish community of any stigma connected to mental health.
Suicide is not a word that comes across with ease.
Yet, as Shoval Gur-Aryeh, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and Jewish Link columnist, explained, there are roughly one million suicide attempts a year in the United States, with one suicide happening every 12.3 minutes.
Often at funerals or shiva houses of suicide victims, we as a Jewish community mostly try to stay in a state of vagueness. We perhaps don’t make eye contact with grieving family members. We might whisper to one another, “So young,” or shake our heads and ask “why?”
“Nobody,” said Gur-Aryeh, “is embarrassed to talk about diabetes or cancer. No one is ashamed about arthritis. We have this stigma with depression and suicidality.”
It seems like a reaction to suicide is denial, said a consensus of sources, “not believing a person would have taken his life. That leads to shame and that leads to blame.”
“Nothing prepares you for this,” said another mental health professional. “This comes out of left field. You feel you are at a movie as the information comes over the phone or email.”
Efrem Epstein told the Jewish Link that he was almost part of the statistic Gur-Aryeh referred to. But he soldiered through, and it was in 2009 that he attended the World Suicide Prevention Day at the United Nations. There he learned about suicide awareness and prevention work being done in the elderly, ethnic, college age, LGBT and immigrant communities. He noted that one of the groups missing was the Jewish community; he decided to change that. He would name the organization Elijah’s Journey, referring to Elijah’s request, “Please take my life now, for I am no better than my ancestors,” in Melachim, Chapter 19, verse 4. “God responds to Elijah’s emotional struggles, sending him on a 40-day journey to reassess his situation. It seemed only fitting to name our project Elijah’s Journey,” he wrote in a Philadelphia Jewish Exponent article in 2014.
Epstein speaks in Jewish settings such as synagogues and schools all over the area. He raised the awareness of suicide within the Jewish community and offers resources for families and friends who know of a loved one suffering from suicidal thoughts. And he uses Biblical texts often to give over examples of how this struggle has traveled through the ages.
“There are nuances to the Jewish community and ways we can connect through Jewish text,” he said. “Before Passover every year, we distribute a reading that people opening the door for Elijah can read.”
Part of that reading addresses the issue directly.
“Today the number of suicides in North America is larger than the number of deaths resulting from automobile accidents. There are twice as many deaths resulting from suicide than homicide. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can help by being the still small voice that says, ‘I’m here to listen. I’m here to sit with you. You are important to me. I care about you.’ A still small voice might have saved Elijah’s life.”
Indeed, Epstein’s work has put what he calls a “Jewish lens on this issue.” That lens calls for forums in synagogues where rabbis can engage congregations with these issues to help alleviate the stigma that families who deal with suicide might face. Epstein pointed out that a stigma comes from a lack of understanding.
Most stigmas, he said, are due to a lack of education and a lack of awareness that people around them are struggling with the same issue. “We as a community need to talk about suicide and address this issue.”
Gur-Aryeh would agree. He said that some have the misconception that those who are suffering from anxiety and depression are “weak” and are suffering because they “haven’t tried hard enough to not have anxiety or depression. But no one ever says to a diabetic, ‘Get your act together.’”
He added that in the Orthodox Jewish community, in particular, there’s an aspect to keeping one’s mental illness secret so it won’t negatively impact a family member’s chances of a shidduch.
“Thankfully, over the last 15 years, I’ve seen an increasing effort in the Orthodox world to destigmatize mental illness,” said Gur-Aryeh. “A lot of agencies are getting the word out. Still parents feel a sense of hopelessness and helplessness and as failures as parents if there is a child who suffers from depression or even more, with suicidality. They ask ‘How this can happen?’”
Dena Cohen is the founder of the Bergen County-based support group Refa’enu, as a response to a friend’s suicide. Previously, after she was diagnosed with a mood disorder herself, she began attending the Mood Disorder Support Group of New York, an organization that holds peer-led support groups. Cohen then trained and started facilitating support groups herself. Her groups in New Jersey meet the first and third Tuesday of every month at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus. One group is for people with mood disorders such as depression or bipolar, the other for family members of people with mood disorders.
She said that if there indeed is a stigma to mental illness, a lot has to do with a lack of understanding about mental illness in general. “You can’t see a lot of things. You don’t know what’s going on inside someone’s mind. Educating and creating a whole vocabulary about what people are going through is crucial. When people don’t understand things they will write it off as weird.
“In the Jewish community there’s that drive for success to be a doctor or lawyer, but not everyone fits in that cookie cutter mold. I think there’s probably an added factor when it comes to shidduchim.”
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, spiritual leader of Netivot Shalom, has openly spoken about depression and suicide. He has also written about his own struggles with depression.
“We have to be open about suicide prevention in the Jewish community,” he said. “I encourage people, especially those in the limelight such as community leaders and rabbis, to talk about their own personal experiences with depression. The more people talk about it, the less stigma we have. People are able to say, ‘I have cancer, so I have to take time for treatment,’ and that’s accepted. We should get to a point where talking about the issue of mental illness is acceptable.”
“I found that when I was in depression, the more people I kept talking to, the more and more people were willing to talk about it,” added Helfgot. “There were six degrees of separation. A friend, a family member who was willing to talk openly about it, and I’ve seen greater understanding.”
Part of the stigma of depression, Helfgot said, was a language problem. There’s a difference between someone who is “depressed” because the Giants lost a close game and the person who “suffers from depression.”
Rabbi Helfgot wrote extensively of his own depression in the Fall/2001 edition of the Jewish Action.
He wrote then, “Too many of us still speak in whispers about mental illness. The stigma persists. This is troubling because mental illness is a condition that is experienced by many of our own flesh and blood.”
Or, as Cohen added, “Some people might say you have to trust in Hashem, and all things do happen for a reason,” she said. “But we’re talking about medical reasons. We can’t see them. Someone might say your feelings are ‘all in your head.’ No, they are all in your brain. So, yes, trust in God, but also trust in medicine.
“If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, tell someone you trust, someone who will be able to advocate for you if you can’t advocate for yourself,” she said. “If you can’t find someone, there are support groups through NAMI. What I’ve learned from support groups is that you can be in a room with a complete stranger who you have otherwise nothing in common with, but you share the common bond with your mental health conditions. You don’t have to struggle to explain yourself. There’s so much potential to learn from one another.”
By Phil Jacobs