I reluctantly wrote the following post in July after Faigy Mayer lept to her death. Many people appear not to have grasped the message of that post, and events over the weekend have caused them to do what they did when Faigy died – push their own agendas regarding the new death and push for tabloid-like coverage of it, all the while seemingly oblivious to the fact they're doing something wrong. (One of these people even attributed the two deaths to haredi "inbreeding," even though even a cursory knowledge of this particular family shows that could not be further from the truth.)
Mental illness happens. Much of it is biologically based. Some cases can be effectively managed with medication that replaces chemicals the ill brain is deficient in. Others can have symptoms abated by medication that suppresses them without truly improving the underlying cause. Child abuse of all types, rape and the shunning many ex-haredim suffer when they leave their haredi communities all play roles in exacerbating underlying mental illness and can in and of themselves cause severe depression and a whole host of related problems.
But not every OTD suicide is completely or predominantly due to that shunning or abuse. And not all relatives who remain behind and suffer because of stigmas placed on the mentally ill by the haredi community end their lives because of it. But some certainly do.
The lesson you should learn from these tragedies is that mental illness happens. Depression is real, and it sometimes kills. It does this to gainfully employed people in all walks of life, religious or not, Jewish or not, and it does it to people you would see and define as severely mentally illl.
The proper response is not to rush to demand lurid tabloid headlines or rush to ascribe blame. The proper response is to work to end the stigma of mental illness and to do your best to see that people who may need help get it. In other words, help prevent suicide, don't revel in what you think the most recent suicide may prove.
My post from July 22:
I didn't want to have to write this.
A very tragic part of life is that some people commit suicide. They often do so even when they have loving families and a good support system.
The questions for our community in wake of the latest suicide are as follows:
1. Does the shunning of ex-haredim by their families increase the risk of suicide?
2. Does that shunning increase the actual number of suicides?
3. Do generations of marriages from within a very small gene pool contribute to the mental illness and depression that can lead to suicide?
4. Is there more the ex-haredi community should be doing to prevent suicide?
5. Is there more the haredi community should be doing to prevent suicide of ex-haredim?
6. What about suicide within the haredi community by haredim who are not skeptics or leading double lives or trying to leave? Is there more haredi community leaders could be doing to prevent it?
7. What role should the wider Jewish community be playing to stop suicide?
8. What roles should government and the media play?
The first answer is that, as far as I know, no hard statistics exist – in part because the US and state governments don't collect data by religious (or former religious) affiliation and in part because people don't like to talk about suicide and even in secular communities often associate it with shame and moral weakness, rather than viewing it as a public mental heath issue. So what we have is strong anecdotal evidence.
That evidence appears to show that being shunned by family and your former community may increase the likelihood of suicide.
So does living in a community that stigmatizes mental health issues and punishes the siblings and other relatives of mentally ill members, primarily by making it much more difficult to find ‘quality’ marriage partners and by pushing families with a mentally ill member down to the bottom of the community’s social hierarchy. No family wants to suffer this way and many go to great lengths to conceal the family member’s illness. That stigmatizes the ill family member in the one place s/he should expect unconditional love and support.
We also know that marriages to close relatives and from within a small gene pool – both very common in the Ashkenazi Jewish community until rather recently and still common in parts of the hasidic community even today – increases certain birth defects and some genetically-based illness, including some forms of mental illness.
So it’s reasonable to conclude that when an ex-haredi person commits suicide after being shunned by her family and former community, that shunning was a contributing factor in the suicide. So, too, the haredi community’s attitude toward mental illness. And so too it’s relatively constricted gene pool.
But that doesn’t mean the latest suicide was completely or even primarily caused by that shunning or the other problems just mentioned. We simply do not know that it was.
Obviously, this shunning should stop, but it is probably unrealistic to think it will any time soon.
About all we can hope for is that haredi rabbinic leaders both publicly and privately urge their followers to stop stigmatizing mental illness and urge that they get mental illness treated by competent licensed mental health professionals who do not answer to haredi community leaders, so the temptation to act in the haredi community’s “best interests” rather than the patient’s actual best interests is hopefully removed.
When an ex-haredi person who has been shunned by his or her family and former community commits suicide, haredi trolls often flood the Internet, posting comments under false names or pseudonyms attacking the deceased or lying about the deceased history. (You can see some of that in the comments to this recent post, and you can see similar comments from haredi trolls in the comments section below this one.) These haredi trolls do this to protect the reputation of their purportedly holy community, and more importantly to hurt other ex-haredim while scaring haredim thinking of leaving the haredi community in an attempt to keep them from doing so.
Haredi rabbinic leaders should strongly condemn this trolling, which should never be tolerated.
I think most of us realize, however, that the rabbis will likely never do that, and this awful lying by haredi trolls will continue unabated until the media exposes it and demands answers from haredi rabbinic leaders – or until a creative US Attorney or DA finds a way to prosecute a few of them.
We can also hope and expect that medical examiners and coroners in heavily haredi areas will stop allowing haredi fixers – not the actual medical evidence – to determine cause of death, that suicides will be called suicides rather than accidents or undetermined deaths, and that autopsies will be done whenever they are necessary to establish cause of death, whatever it may be.
As it stands now, haredi fixers and their organizations help to cover up suicides, and this makes the awareness of the problem of suicide within the haredi community much less than it should be.
As for the wider Jewish community, it has to do more than it currently does, and since it currently does almost nothing to help ex-haredim, it shouldn’t be too difficult to show marked improvement.
People who leave closed haredi communities – Satmar, Tosh, etc., – often leave with nothing. They have no high school diploma. They are barely literate in English if literate at all. They don’t know even basic science or algebra or geometry or history. They also don’t know much about American culture, even if they and their parents were born here. They’re completely adrift in avery unfamiliar sea, and they need much more than an occasional tabloid article or free meal to survive and thrive.
Footsteps, the organization founded by Malkie Schwartz a decade ago to help ex-haredim like herself, does what it can. But it needs much more money than it has, a larger staff and more resources, and it needs to have a welcoming non-haredi Jewish community, often a welcoming secular Jewish community, to help ex-haredim integrate into.
But as lots of Federation studies and anecdotal evidence shows, the Jewish community is not a welcoming place for most people, and it is certainly not a welcoming place for near-indigents who don’t know what Camp Ramah or NIFTY are.
The Jewish community could change this if it made an effort to do so. But in almost four decades of working in and around the Jewish community, one thing is very clear: effort and Jewish community are two terms that rarely go hand-in-hand. Effort is what the non-Jewish janitor puts in when he cleans and maintains a multimillion dollar building on near-poverty wages with little or no benefits, not what the shul’s or organization’s members do, even when all that is asked of them is to be welcoming.
So, too, as FailedMessiah.com has reported for years (and as the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty scandal shows), the services the Jewish community claims to provide needy members are in actuality for less than advertised.
Federation leaders and other Jewish community leaders could change this. They could also stop the nepotism and cronyism that also seriously weakens the services they claim to provide. Unfortunately, it is unlikely they will do so any time soon.
As for the media and government, both can do more.
The government can do more to target mental health programs for ex-haredim and for haredim, and it can do much more to make mental health services widely available and affordable for all Americans. Just think of how many suicides (or horrific acts of violence like school shootings) could be prevented by doing so.
For its part, the media could stop focusing almost exclusively on the most lurid aspects of suicides of ex-haredim. The shunning is wrong. It is awful. It plays a role in suicide. But so does lack of mental health resources. So does a cold Jewish community led by nepotistic leaders and their cronies. So does lack of research money and treatment center beds.
Suicide is a package, not a discreet one-off item, and it’s long past time for the New York tabloids to treat it that way.
If you or a friend needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately at 1-800-273-8255. It's open 24/7 and you can (and halakhicly must) break Shabbat or Yom Tov to call if you know or even suspect suicide is possible.