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Op-Ed: It’s Time to Break the Silence

It is with a heavy heart that I am putting pen to paper once again, prompted by another death that should never have happened.

If we knew that Ebola was sweeping through our community, through our yeshivos, our shuls and our playgrounds, wouldn’t we do everything in our power to halt the progress of this deadly disease? Would we spare no expense or effort to insure that our family, our friends and everyone we knew was safe and out of harm’s way? Of course we would.  Because we are a community that values the sanctity of human life above all.

Except when it comes to mental illness.

Mental illness? It falls into the same category as drug addiction and sexual abuse and is yet another unspoken taboo in our world. We try to pretend that these issues don’t exist and if anyone does get up the courage to speak up about a problem, we silence them so that we can continue burying our heads in the sand and pretend that we are safe. That these are issues that don’t happen to “us.”

But they do.

I spoke to one girl today who was suffering from mental illness.  Her only friend in the world had just committed suicide and she had no one to turn to.  She told me that she had an extremely difficult childhood and when she told someone how bad the situation was, instead of getting her the help she so desperately needed, they labeled her a “problem.” That categorization follows her everywhere she goes, every day of her life.  She is a pariah, an outcast.

She told me straight out that I wouldn’t be interested in helping her. That when you speak to people from the Orthodox Jewish community, they call an askan, who arranges to have you put away in a hospital, so that they can pretend you don’t exist.  I spoke with her for a while and she had a hard time believing that I was frum. Because I listened. And I cared.  And from her experience, frum people do neither of those when it comes to mental health.

All of us were shaken by the tragic death of Faigy Meyer and there were those who suggested that she suffered from mental illness.  The day after Faigy took her own life I made a statement that I stand behind today:  While Faigy may not have been my biological sister and I never met her, she is my sister because she is a part of klal yisroel and therefore, I lost a sister when she died.

I don’t want to cause grief to the Meyer family, but I can’t watch people die anymore because they suffer from a mental illness.  We must bring this issue into the spotlight so that people can get the help they so desperately need.  If someone has cancer, we stop at nothing to get them the most qualified doctors and the best medicines.  When someone struggles with infertility, we move heaven and earth to get them the treatments they need.  We are so busy bringing new lives into this world, but what about the people who are already in this world?  Why are we forgetting about them? Why are we not getting them the help that they need?

Mental illness is a disease and we must accept it to be a real issue, not an imaginary problem that we can just wish away.  Only after we accept this as a reality can we make progress and stem the tide of suicides that have been ripping our young people away from us in the prime of their lives at an alarming rate.

In the past ten days we have lost two young lives, one to mental illness and one to a drug overdose.  How many more will it take?  Are we going to wait for every family in klal yisroel to be hit by drugs, or abuse, or mental illness before we start taking the lifesaving steps that are needed to help those who are in need?  Just how many more deaths will it take to make us wake up and face this head on?

As a member of Hatzolah, I am allowed to drive on Shabbos because there is a safek of pikuach nefesh when I go on calls.  But when it comes to issues like this, cases that are 100 percent matters of life and death, we hang back and stand by the sidelines. Something is wrong with our value system and something has to change.

We are the most giving, caring and generous community in the world.  There is no other group that has half as many charitable organizations, individuals who give of their lives to help others, yet when it comes to matters such as these we are silent. We are letting our people die. Worse yet, by not accepting what is happening, we are killing our loved ones, our friends and our neighbors.

I think, better yet, I know, the that the time has long passed for us as a community to stand together, accept these issues at face value and work together to help those in pain.  We need to help those who suffer in silence.

Mental Illness kills. Sexual Abuse kills. Addiction kills.  And we need to take action now before another young life is lost.

Zvi Gluck is the director of Amudim Community Resources, an organization dedicated to helping abuse victims and those suffering with addiction within the Jewish community and has been heavily involved in crisis intervention and management for the past 15 years.  For more information go to www.amudim.org.

19 Comments

    • 3. yes wrote:

      there is shmiras ainayim
      they will provide you with the help , centers needed.
      itssss a major crisies in Lubavitch …
      what would the Rebbe have done or answered.
      lets deal with it …

  • 4. Interesting wrote:

    Being that i just brought that up in class today to my teacher u penned the words straight from my heart

  • 5. with all due respect wrote:

    you write:
    “I spoke with her for a while and she had a hard time believing that I was frum. Because I listened. And I cared.”
    serously, seriously, that is not true and a terrible thing to say about Yidden,
    there are all types in each society, to make a statement as made above is terrible and dishonest

    • 6. saddened wrote:

      I do not think it was dishonest, because it is how the sufferer felt. If someone feels that way, there must be a reason for it. Instead of getting defensive about it, we maybe need to take a step back and ask ourselves WHY she feels that way. It would be more constructive than saying there is no problem.

  • 7. give it 10 wrote:

    In this case, it’s the doctors who failed this girl. She went for help and the system let her down. Mental illness is probably the most difficult illness to treat. It’s so easy to blame our incredible community for suicide. How do you explain the much higher suicide rate in the non jewish community?

  • 8. Morah wrote:

    you bring about a valid point. Kudos to you for stepping up and crating an organization that does something about the problem.

    I say this respectfully-
    Two things- The above picture is Faigy Mayer ah,
    I get the impression from your article you are asking why for mental health issues you need to ”hang back” al pi halacha?This is rules from chachamim. Not things we made up. Please explain what you mean by this statement.

    As a member of Hatzolah, I am allowed to drive on Shabbos because there is a safek of pikuach nefesh when I go on calls. But when it comes to issues like this, cases that are 100 percent matters of life and death, we hang back and stand by the sidelines. Something is wrong with our value system and something has to change.

  • 9. Be Smart wrote:

    Educating ourselves and those around us to recognize mental health issues is the key. I’m not a doctor but I know where to turn if, G-d forbid, I need one.

    There are more than a few people within the frum world calling themselves mental health “experts” who don’t have an ounce of mental health training. Why is this? Because those who are actually qualified to help are either too far and few between (as you suggest) or are simply powerless to be heard through all the confusion.

  • 10. It's about time! wrote:

    The problem is real and needs to be dealt with in the right way. Thank you for writing this. We need a lot more of this awareness.

  • 11. Important article! wrote:

    How many of us know of someone who has a mental issue and refuses to deal with it. The first thing that comes to mind of course is that if the world finds out that my sister/brother/ son/ daughter has a mental disorder it will effect the shidduch possibilities of the rest of the family.

    But should it? Don’t we know of tremendously good and successful people that had/has siblings with mental disorders. Why would this case be so different? How many people refused to even consider a good shidduch preposition for their son/daughter because there is a sibling in the other family with a mental disorder?

    OK back to the real issue. When will we as a community come to grips with the fact that there are so many of our friends/relatives/neighbors with mental issues? When will begin to look at people with mental illness just the same as we look at people with physical disorders? Well anyway this is what the article is all about. So I am merely repeating whats already been said in this article.

    • 12. Not the Same Thing wrote:

      My heart goes out to those in their affliction. You’re right — the frum community is not generally kind toward these kinds of people. However, to equate it with a physical disability is dangerously naïve.

      If only treatment for a mental disorder were so simple, or as concrete as a physical disease or disability. With the latter, at least, the person can learn, albeit with difficulty, to adjust to the medical realities. He or she might have to use a wheelchair, monitor blood sugar, or take medication. But there is a certain consistency.

      But someone mentally ill can be unpredictable to the point of terrifying. I know, because I grew up with it bigtime — several family members. I never knew what mood my mother would be in, or if my brother would explode in rage. My sister would argue and hit people. These people have cognitive dysfunction, not just hormonal or neurological, which can only be partially alleviated by medication. Yet how many times have I heard: “All he or she needs to do is pop a pill.” Or worse: “Just stay on the medication until you’re married.”

      While I’m of the opinion that people with severe mental illness really should not get married (I question the whole concept of bashert, anyway), I do understand the desperation of families who, for social or shidduch concerns, try to marry off a problem child (as in this case here, with the second Mayer girl), partially in the hopes that it might normalize her, as well as save the family’s reputation. Others get placed carefully out of sight. The level denial has produced disastrous consequences; I have seen very few success stories.

      There is no easy answer. It was not the religion, or Chassidic community, that made the Mayer girls sick, but unfortunately some of the societal dynamics work against people like them.

  • 13. Change the name wrote:

    This is no longer Boro Park. At the rate we’re going, this is Masada!
    I mean, one is bad enough, two is two much. And, then, there are so many who feel like doing it, but, fortunately, never carry it out. Nevertheless, as far as suffering goes, are those victims any better-off than those who ended up taking their own lives?

    MOSHIACH YESTERDAY!

    (If he would have been here then, for sure, he’d be here today)

  • 14. you mean well but wrote:

    this poor neshome suffered from 2 ilnesses Borderline pd & bipolar disorder ( approx 15% of bpd patients also suffer from a mood disorder – in short its hell on this earth hospitalazition for years in & out means the system spent a MILLION dollars to try to heal her
    these neshamos are gilgulim & have some sort of tikun while their souls get imprisoned in their body
    just because we cant fix every problem does not mean we dont care
    zvi you are a good guy and your emotions are writing this article you know well the problems are way bigger than the solutions ” moshiach now”

  • 15. Friend wrote:

    A tragedy without accusation and pointing fingers. But we can learn for the future.

    Mental illness r”l is not for layman.. We all want the best doctor upon needing a medical procedure. Find the right therapist is tricky, at best.

    Often the people who need an expert therapist don’t have money or insurance to go to the right doctor. So they land up with the best that no money can buy.

    This won’t bring these unfortunate neshamos, but for the future, there must be professional therapists in place who have the wherewithal to steer patients to the right doctor.
    I am in no way saying that this was not done here, but we have to vigilant, educated consumers.

  • 16. the core of the problem wrote:

    it is so very much comman that we are unbalance,some more than others,l cannot stress it more powerful than this,we need top holistic care for these people,l cannot stress it more strongly than this l will give you an example,my mother committed suidcide when l was a child,in thise days it was comman to drink in pregnanty,as we now know that this is a no no however it was comman then so she became an alcoholic by default,she was also blood o,which not only cannot handle alcohol but have a poor tolance for sugar too ,so she was mis diagnose with mental illness,my nutritionist said most are mis diagnose,she was put into a mental hopital and of course she got sicker,she was not betreated for the right thing,she couldn’t bare the pain,she took her life, l want you to understand that unfortunately very little has changed today in this way of thinking,l say it again,it’s vital that we have top quality holistic health care that’s spread out through the community. it’s know thing to people to go to a dr,however,if the first thing they say is it’s all in your head,you march right out and get yourselve a top quality holistic care.

  • 17. as others have alluded to wrote:

    There needs to be a list of extremely capable therapists in addition to funds to pay them, for those that don’t have it.

    • 18. No its not like a physical illness wrote:

      We rush to justify mental illness by comparing it with “real” biological, evidence-based illness.

      While this perspective did come a long way, in many situations a deeper look into actual symptoms reveal the very signs of victims of psychological trauma, often Type-II. Because the victem’s behavior closely mimics that of MDD, they are commonly misdiagnosed for “depression.” I’ve seen cases where victems have been misdiagnosed as having “GAD” but were actually experiencing PTSD.

      Even among the fields leading experts, the biological data we currently have is incredibly limited. Yes, the official DSM-lV does give us a well developed framework to make sense of the myriad clusters of symptoms, classifying, standardizing, revising, but it tells us nothing about underlying cause.

      It’s important for us treatment providers to remember that we don’t yet have any blood test, lab procedure that can provide biological evidence of mental illness. At best, PET brain imaging can depict clues, but that’s about it.

  • 19. with the old breed wrote:

    it is sad, yes there is a stigma because we all have some small part of us that has this problem. please think about this the next time someone acts out. it could be you.

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