Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Depression in the Frum Community

With special thanks to AlanLaz for pointing out the follow-up to the story to me, and to many friends, family, and others for all they've shared over the years.

A young man from Toronto, studying in Ner Israel Rabbinical College (Ner Yisroel) in Baltimore, died yesterday. He was 24 years old; married; and according to all those who knew him, an incredibly wonderful young man.

According to the policeman who witnessed the event, he died when he jumped off the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge on I-95 into the Susquehanna River.

This post is not to talk about his tragic death, but the immediate aftermath. Nearly every Jewish website that reported on the story claimed at the time that the young man had been in a one car crash on the windy bridge and been thrown from his vehicle into the water.*

Phil Jacobs of the Baltimore Jewish Times says it perfectly, and please read his whole piece, as it's so important:
What concerned me the most was the initial public comment that this couldn’t possibly have been a suicide, that it was an accident.
What concerns me is this propensity to cover up.
Because what this does is it discourages others who could be suffering from chronic depression from seeking help. No, not the help that their rav can give them, but the help that a licensed clinical social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist could help them with. Or stated differently, the best help the rav could give a troubled soul is a referral to a trained professional.
It is one thing to be sad, but quite another to be depressed. It is one thing to say, “I feel like killing myself,” but it’s quite another to actually find that dark place where a realization that this is “for keeps” still isn’t enough to stop one from ending his life.
There is such a daunting list of reasons why a person living in an insular life wouldn’t seek treatment. I guess going to a “shrink” could end up impacting a relative’s shidduch (dating ability). I guess getting psychological help carries with it a stigma that connects to words such as “weakness” or “instability.”
But then there is the possibility of our old friend arrogance holding power over accountability. If this was, indeed, a suicide, I fear that it was arrogance taking a troubled soul away from us. It’s the same cover, the same hurt that keeps some of us from asking for help we desperately need for ourselves or our loved ones who have been sexually molested, verbally or physically assaulted.
Our rabbis can offer up Rashi or Rambam. But we some need are therapy and yes even medications. That’s not a weakness, that’s a strength that makes sense.
Look around your table this Shabbos. How many people are there? 4? 8? Statistically, slightly over one in four people in this country suffer (about 58 million) from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. This rate is not lower in the Orthodox Jewish community. The odds are that around a given Shabbos table, either the person sitting on your right, on your left, across from you, or you yourself, suffer from something like depression**.

I still recall a meal we had once at someone else's house, with a number of others. It might have been a simcha of some sort, I can't recall. The topic of depression came up, and one close friend spoke out against the stigmatizing of it, noting the number just cited of 1 in 4, and then raised their hand stating openly, "Hey, I suffer from depression. I'm also doing what I can to take care of it properly." This was in front of their spouse, family members, and friends. Nobody in the family even blinked - for them, this wasn't a stigma, or "shameful". It was part of life - as with anything, you find someone who can help you and you work at it, whether with therapy, medication, exercise, or something else. I thought this was incredible, and something that is sorely lacking among far too many of us. We stigmatize so much - why? Wouldn't it be better for everyone if all those who needed help felt comfortable seeking it?

A large part of our automatic stigmatizing seems to come from lack of education and fear. We don't understand things like depression, so we're scared of it. Some people think that if someone is depressed they must be somehow "dangerous". Others think that if someone is considered depressed, they must be unhappy, and "who would want to be married to such a person". Sometimes people seem to think that it's "difficult" to deal with someone who suffers from depression. Well, maybe it can be sometimes, and certainly not everyone is equipped to deal with someone who is. Then again, after 4-1/2 years [today!], Serach will tell you that I'm pretty difficult sometimes, and I don't suffer from any mental disorders that I am aware of, and I'm sure that not everyone would be a good match for me, either. (This brings to mind this excellent old post by Pobody's Nerfect - read through the comments.) There's a profound lack of knowledge about depression and an amazing amount of misinformation. I know that I have been corrected many times in the past, and surely I still have much to learn - despite many conversations and having read plenty of material on the subject. The more we know, the easier it is to understand, help, and avoid these stigmas.

I don't know where I'm going with this, but I guess it's to repeat what Mr. Jacobs is emphasizing in his article. We need to stop stigmatizing mental illnesses, we need to be encouraging to each other who need it to seek the help they need.
Mental illness needs the same sort of tender loving care. It is not intangible, it hurts. Depression has physical pain in many instances connected to it. It shouldn’t be treated with shame nor embarrassment. Because if it is treated as a stigma, more “amazing, kind, gentle learned men,” could look for bridges to stop their pain instead of seeking our help.

And that cannot be.
* For what it's worth, VIN has since apologized and corrected the story; YeshivaWorld has not.
** I'm picking depression only because it's more common and I'm most familiar with it.