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Putting a Jewish face on suicide
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Putting a Jewish face on suicide

JFS workshop on prevention chips away at stigma of mental illness

Eric Levenson was an honors student at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. He had friends, took a painting class at the Montclair Art Museum, played guitar and piano, and loved movies.  

From the outside he seemed like a typical adolescent. 

That normalcy was shattered on a late December day in 2001, when the then-14-year-old walked out of school, crossed the busy intersection of Columbia Turnpike and Eisenhower Parkway, and hid in a bathroom at the Livingston Mall. He was found hours later and his plan to run away was thwarted. 

His mother, Eta Levenson, is a social worker (she would later teach clinical social work at Rutgers) and at the time she was the assistant director at Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities. But until that day, she was unaware of Eric’s demons.  

“I had all the tools to be able to recognize my son’s problems and yet I didn’t,” she said. 

What followed was a 14-year battle with depression and other mental health challenges, including revelations of cutting and feeling full of rage. In spite of the interventions of his family, intense therapies, and numerous hospitalizations, Eric took his own life in February 2016; he was 28 years old. 

Levenson delivered the opening remarks at a Nov. 3 Jewish Family Service of MetroWest New Jersey (JFS) workshop, “Preventing Suicide in Adolescents and Young Adults.” She told the 118 people in attendance, “You just don’t know what’s sitting in front of you, and that’s why we’re here today.” 

JFS planned the event in response to a “perceived increase” in rates of local suicides, although statistics were not available about the exact number, according to Sara Mendez Emma, JFS clinical director of child and adolescent services. The overall number of Jews who take their lives is unknown, as well, but the rate is thought to mirror that of the general population: Suicide occurs nationally at a rate of 13.26 per 100,000 people; in New Jersey, the rate is 8.27 per 100,000, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). 

The seriousness of the subject matter was not lost on the attendees, which included social workers, school mental health professionals, teachers, youth educators, and more. Underscoring the urgency to address the matter, a freshman at Kent Place School in Summit committed suicide a mere four days before the program.

“Our community has experienced some pretty significant losses over the past several years that have left people asking, ‘What can we do?’” said Lauren Hennion, director of clinical services at JFS. This is the first JFS workshop in recent years for educational and mental health professionals, and the large turnout, she said, was “beyond what we expected.” 

Funding came from two sources that support programming on mental health awareness: the Eric Eliezer Levenson Foundation for Hope, established by Eta and her husband Mark, and a matching grant from the Jewish Funders Network and Genesis Prize Foundation. The program, held at the JCC MetroWest, was led by Suzanne Levy, director of clinical training in the Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT) Training Program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. ABFT is the only evidence-based family therapy model designed to treat adolescent depression. Levy addressed topics that dealt with identifying risks for suicide, engaging families in treatment, creating safety plans, and more.

Ninety percent of people who commit suicide have an underlying mental health condition, according to the AFSP. Hennion hoped mental health and communal professionals would “come away with skills they can use so they can feel empowered and capable of healing the people in their lives,” she said, though her “overarching” goal was to promote community awareness of suicide and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. 

“There’s been a sea change in this conversation in the broader community — not just the Jewish community,” said Reuben Rotman, CEO of Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, a membership association for non-profits that provide human services in the U.S., Canada, and Israel. “Even 15, 20 years ago, or less, mental health issues — depression, anxiety, suicide — weren’t discussed as openly as they are today. It’s a positive; it means that people are feeling more comfortable talking about community struggles.”

Esther Goldman, a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Millburn, was “thrilled” when she saw an ad about the program. 

“It’s so, so important to be addressing this in the community,” she said. “People don’t realize how much it exists in all communities and the Jewish community. It’s important for it to be out in the open.” Goldman has worked for decades at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in Manhattan, previously in the outpatient psychiatry department. She currently hosts a support group for women with depression and anxiety who are raising children. The topic of adolescents who are suicidal comes up frequently, she said.  

Risk factors can include substance abuse, struggles with gender identity and sexuality, religious beliefs that conflict with what’s practiced at home, and bullying. In fact, Levy said that in a recent study, 90 percent of suicidal adolescents listed bullying as a contributing factor.   

In her remarks, Levy dispelled one myth: that using the word “suicide” makes someone want to kill themselves. On the contrary, she said, using words such as “death” and “suicide” makes it easier to determine the level of suicidal risk. 

While suicide is the third leading cause of death in New Jersey for those between 10 and 34, according to the AFSP, some of the professionals in attendance work in lower school populations and with students younger than 10. Goldman recalled evaluating children as young as 6 years old for suicidal thoughts.

“Mental health awareness is increasing in the community, so people are recognizing in younger children maybe these are signs of anxiety, maybe these are signs of depression or bullying,” said Mendez Emma of JFS. “Our goal and our hope is that that stereotype of having any type of mental health issue is going away.”  

The teachers and staff in attendance included public school districts such as Rockaway Township, Livingston, Florham Park, West Orange, Bloomfield, and others. Day school staff came from Golda Och Academy (GOA), Gottesman RTW Academy, and every division of the Kushner Schools. The Jewish Educational Center did not attend due to scheduling conflicts, according to Akiva Perlman, director of counseling services. 

“The more we talk about it the less stigma,” said Donna Karp, full-time JFS social worker at the lower school of GOA in West Orange. Her school takes a proactive approach to mental well-being, she said, and tries to impress upon students that there are adults that they can turn to in a time of crisis. 

“Bottom line is saving lives,” said Goldman about suicide. “The Talmud says whoever saves a life is as if he saved the world. We have to do anything we can to destigmatize mental illness and have treatment available.” 

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