When Eric Levenson turned 14, his parents, Mark and Eta Levenson of West Orange, began noticing his mental problems.
“We had no idea he was feeling stressed,” his mother told NJJN in an Aug. 26 phone interview. “Suddenly, without any warning, he started to exhibit problems and we discovered he was severely depressed.”
In February 2016, Eric took his own life at the age of 28.
He was one of the 117 Americans who commit suicide every day; suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 15 and 64 years in the United States.
While his parents declined to discuss the way he died, his mother said, “As Eric was getting worse we were very afraid for his life because we knew he was feeling more and more depressed and more and more hopeless. We knew it was going to happen. It was only a question of when.”
The grievous loss of their oldest son has impelled the Levensons to become involved in suicide prevention, in and outside of the Jewish community. Mark is an attorney who is prominent in volunteer work for Jewish organizations. Eta is a clinical social worker who chairs Greater MetroWest ABLE, an agency that works to include developmentally challenged individuals “in active and meaningful participation in every aspect of Jewish life.”
Eta also runs a confidential support group for Jewish parents of the mentally ill. “Parents need this to be able to figure out how to help their children and to get help for themselves,” she said. “My goal is to make the Jewish community aware that suicide is a problem in the Jewish community, as it is everywhere else,” she said.
One group helping the Levensons and thousands of others is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It is sponsoring an “Out of the Darkness Walk” on Sunday, Sept. 18, at noon in the football stadium of Braddock Park in North Bergen.
“We are inviting people to come and join us in this very easy walk and meet our family and our participants, as well as other families who have been affected by suicide,” Eta said.
The AFSP holds support groups in all 50 states for friends and family members they call “survivors of suicide.” It has two chapters in New Jersey — one in Freehold and one in Saddle Brook. One of its main goals is to destigmatize suicide.
“It is an amazing concept,” Eta said. “People may say someone who committed suicide died in an accident or after a long illness. Suicide is not a comfortable thing to talk about. But here was this group of people who knew exactly what we were going through…. Just being there together is important. We feel we can give people the support that they need.”
Treating Eric’s ongoing depression was a 14-year challenge for the Levensons. He failed to respond to psychiatric care and medications for depression. “There were periods of more calmness and more satisfaction with life. I wouldn’t say he was ever happy except for brief moments,” said Eta.
Despite strong obstacles, Eric graduated from a high school for students with emotional disabilities “where he really shined,” said his mother. He went on to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. and graduated in five years with a degree in psychology and music.
“He had a car accident and needed to take a year off because he was in a wheelchair, then a walker, and Muhlenberg did their best to accommodate him It is a small college which gave people individual attention, and they went out of the way for him,” she said.
After graduation Eric stayed in Allentown, where he worked as a counselor for young people with developmental disabilities until a year before his death.
During that time, Eta was assistant director of Yachad, a program for people with developmental disabilities.
“Eric helped me out when he was a kid and when he was in college helped me out in the summers,” said Eta. “He had an affinity to relate to people with challenges because he understood what their lives were like. He was an amazing counselor. They offered to promote him a number of times to an administrative position, but he wanted to work with ‘the guys,’ as he put it. Money wasn’t the issue. The issue for him was helping people.”
Then he had a second car accident in which he suffered a traumatic brain injury. After spending a week in a coma and a week in traumatic care, he was treated at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange.
“In a way that was the best time we had in years, because with the brain injury there was memory loss, which was helpful because he could not remember why he was so upset,” Eta said. “For a while he really seemed to flourish. He decided to temporarily move back home to West Orange with us and pursue a graduate degree in social work. He was living with us at the time of his death.”
Seven months later, the Levensons are committed to suicide prevention and helping others cope with suicide by telling the story of their son.
“You need to not be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “Prevention comes by destigmatizing suicide and making people aware. We know this is the kind of thing that Eric would want us to do.”