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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.