By Rabbi Raphael Aron
The tragic death of Faigy Mayer in Manhattan recently has sent shockwaves through our communities. Once again, concerned parents and community leaders are searching for solutions; a means by which young people disillusioned and disenfranchised by their own orthodox communities can be assisted and supported.
As is often the case, while tragedies of this nature trigger debate and discussion, these processes are often short-lived. The deeper lessons that could be learnt are often submerged under the various blogs and comments which surface at these times. Personal agendas, even vendettas dominate the headlines undermining what might be learnt from this tragedy.
Clearly, there are critical lessons to be learned; this tragedy does not simply highlight the need to educate parents about communication with their children and how to be more inclusive and tolerant – admittedly a big ask for many – but on a far more significant level, the tragedy is a stark reminder of the fact that many of our orthodox and indeed Chassidic communities need to address the availability and provision of mental health services for those families and individuals in need.
While we may have made inroads in this area in recent years, there is a huge amount of work to be done. Of course there is a place for a Rov and a Mashpia as there is a place for teachers and mentors. But the reality is that for many orthodox families and individuals, mental health is a foreign language. Others are genuinely concerned that a visit to a mental health professional will affect the prospects of their children’s Shidduchim. Even those parents who recognize that a visit to a psychologist or psychiatrist may be worthwhile, the cost – possibly $500 for a single appointment – is simply not affordable.
The starting point is awareness, in particular, a campaign to inform the community of basic issues of mental health so that families have some understanding of the sorts of conditions which can have a major effect on an individual’s wellbeing. Anxiety, depression and OCD are far more prevalent than many would like to believe. More importantly, an effective diagnosis and treatment are usually the keys to resolution and in many cases a return to good health, a possible reconnection to community and restoration of family harmony and cohesiveness.
In writing about the letter that Faigy wrote before her death, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudas Israel, made a particularly important point. “By her own account, Faigy faced deep internal adversity from her early youth, and her letter, read carefully, only corroborates the clouded lens through which she viewed her environment. Her psychological challenges were not the result of her leaving her home and community, but arguably a cause of it,” he continued.
In a similar vein, I do not believe that the decision of many people to leave their faith is simply the product of a philosophical or theological crisis; more often it is related to other deep-seated personal and emotional issues which the individual is confronting. Some of those issues are of a mental health nature.
An effective response to this troubling issue would include two central themes. There is the need to assist parents who are faced with the challenge of children choosing to part ways with their orthodox standards. Issues of communication, boundaries, discipline, accommodation and tolerance lie at the center of the challenges families face at these times. There is also a need for community programs to address issues of mental health. As Rabbi Shafran writes, “The only takeaway from this horrible loss is the need to de-stigmatize mental illness – in all communities – and to realize the tragedies that, if left untreated, it can bring about.”
I am reminded of two stories.
1. A young woman who had completely removed herself from her parents’ Chassidisher way of life wrote me an email in which she said, “I have no idea whether I will continue on my current path or whether I will return to my parents’ and grandparents’ ways. But I do know the most important factor in that decision will be the manner in which my parents deal with me and my current choice of lifestyle.”
2. A young man who had been thrown out of his Yeshivah and shunned by his family and most of his friends finally sort help from a psychologist who had been recommended by a close friend who had also left his family and community. The young man was diagnosed as suffering from depression. He agreed to a course of medication and on-going therapy. He is now well, has reconnected with his family and is building bridges with his community.
As a community, we have the responsibility to learn all we can from Faigy Mayer’s tragic death. This is a not a time for recriminations or blame but rather an opportunity to face the challenges which are highlighted by this shocking event.
Rabbi Raphael Aron is a counselor and therapist who has dedicated 35 years to working with individuals involved with cults. He is the director of the Gateway Family Counselling Centre in Melbourne, Australia. Learn more at raphaelaron.com