This Orthodox Woman Spoke Out After Her Mother’s Suicide. Now, She’s Breaking The Silence About Her Own PTSD
On June 5, the iconic 55-year-old fashion designer Kate Spade committed suicide, leaving behind a husband and 13-year-old daughter. The news shocked the world: Spade was known for her bright and cheerful designs, incredibly successful and seemingly in the prime of her life.
But it’s not just the family members of the rich and famous whose lives are upturned by suicide. Mental illness impacts every community, including our Jewish ones. Several weeks before Spade’s death, a young woman who lost her mother to suicide gave a stirring call to action on mental health awareness and the destigmatization of mental illness.
Not two years after losing her mother to suicide, Shanee Markovitz addressed a crowd of a few hundred students at Yeshiva University’s Stomp Out The Stigma forum, an annual student-run event where fellow students speak about their personal experiences with mental health. Poised and determined, Markovitz discussed losing her mother, the ensuing experiences, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in compelling detail.
Markovitz has become a mental health advocate in recent years, following publication of the viral article she wrote for the Forward in 2016 discussing her mother’s suicide and the importance of addressing mental health issues in the Orthodox community. She served as the Founding Vice President of Refuat Hanefesh, a quickly growing not-for-profit determined to provide mental health information and support to the Jewish community at large. Markovitz joined the organization after Dr. Ariel Mintz (Founding President and current Executive Director) reached out to her upon reading the article. She seized the opportunity, wishing to use her experience to help change reality for others in similar situations. Driven by volunteers, the organization currently offers a blog of personal stories and professional guidance, support room, yearly creative expression contests, and monthly live conversations as well as other resources. While Markovitz is still involved with Refuat Hanefesh, she stepped back after transitioning into college.
Markovitz, a junior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, is not willing to accept the environment that our society has created in which “a mom is too scared to tell someone that she does not want to live out of fear that she will get looked down upon,” a world where ”stigma thrives and people are kept silent with weight they only wish they could share.”
During shiva (the seven days of mourning), several fellow Orthodox Jews told Markovitz that they could personally empathize with her situation. Some confessed to her, “I can’t tell you how my grandfather died, but I will say your story is very similar to mine,” or “my sister died by suicide too.” How could such secrecy reign? As Markovitz recalls, “A Rabbi, a psychologist and a few family friends gently told us, ‘Anything you say [about your mother], you can’t take back. Maybe just say she died suddenly.’ The idea of covering up the suicide with a heart attack came up. They were trying to protect us from the thick stigma and deep scrutiny everyone thinks they will face in this situation. On the morning of the worst day of my life, I was offered silence. It was handed to me on a silver platter. It was glowing.” Markovitz and her father considered taking this route, but as appealing as a coverup sounded, they knew better. Markovitz knew that “silence was everything that led up to this horrifying moment.”
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Markovitz, a former colleague of mine at Refuat Hanefesh, to conduct a follow-up interview to her speech. Shanee offered new details, practical advice, and thoughts on how the Jewish community can and must do better in its approach to mental health.
Etan Neiman: Has anything happened which has stood out to you in the weeks following your speech?
Shanee Markovitz: People from school with whom I’ve been interacting with for a year came to me and shared their burdens. Especially knowing that I’m going to continue to interact with them, that’s brave on their end.
EN: Over the past couple years, have you received pushback, people urging you not to be so open with your mother’s suicide and your mental health?
SM: Thankfully, not so much. I did, though, receive a rather significant pushback from my mom’s extended side of the family. If the people closest to my mom were denying simple facts, that motivated me to speak up louder. It is really important to make people understand mental illness so that we can change the way we view it.
EN: It almost seemed procedural how quickly you were offered silence, a cover-up. How do we get others to stop seeking shelter in the false safety that is silence in the face of similarly terrible situations and why is it important to speak up?
SM: I actually think silence is not false security for some people. There are some people who cannot speak out and that is largely a direct consequence of the society we have created.
For those who are able to speak up: we don’t like the way society is treating people with mental illness. Change won’t just happen. People will need to step up and share their stories, whether personal or about a family member. Even though it is comfortable to remain silent, let’s look at the bigger picture of what we are trying to accomplish.
EN: So you do not believe it is an obligation for those who lose someone to suicide to be straightforward about it like you have been?
SM: I would say it is a responsibility for those who are able to.
EN: Considering the silence you were offered, do you trust the current suicide statistics? Is the Jewish community misguided in any belief of a lower suicide rate?
SM: If you look at the statistics, I believe they are actually pretty similar in the Jewish population. Most people assume the Jewish rate is much lower. There is no reason to think that the Jewish population is different from the rest of the population.
EN: A few months after your mother’s death, you described your quality of life as follows: “I was not sleeping more than a handful of hours on a good night. I was plagued with nightmares every night, nightmares that left me shaking, left me gasping for air. I could not be alone in a room, could not go thirty minutes without reliving my mom’s suicide.” Why did you feel it important to divulge so much detail of your PTSD in your speech?
SM: I gave pretty classic PTSD symptoms and actually chose some of the least graphic examples. My goal was not to make this about my emotions or me sharing my struggles. Rather, I wanted listeners to understand how PTSD affects people. For those who know me, it would never cross their mind that I would be experiencing any of these symptoms. That’s because I’m a normal person and this is just something I deal with. People need to start viewing mental illness as just that: normal people dealing with different things.
EN: Having an illness, you logically got treatment. As you discussed in your speech, you went to therapy, at some points three times a week, and while it was a lot of work, you believed you were worth the work and you were not willing to sacrifice your functionality, your brain and your life. Why do you think so many cannot come to this thought-process, that they are worth the work of therapy and treatment?
SM: In addition to society in general, families are oftentimes to blame. Thankfully, I was told by my boyfriend every day how much he believed in me. My father and siblings also supported me. I internalized that and eventually believed it and was ready to do better for myself. If we can promote this approach in our schools, in our Shuls, and in our families, then that is the thought process that I believe every single person will come to: that they are worth the work.
EN: The stigma is certainly prevalent in the dating and relationship world.
SM: Yes. The day that my mom died, I was told that I should be prepared in case my boyfriend – who I had been dating for two-and-a-half years at that point – or his family wanted him to break up with me. I approached him and I told him that if he wants to, I understand. He literally laughed and said that that would never cross his mind. That’s a huge part of the puzzle: many have assumptions that someone may not love them or will leave them if they know they have a mental health history. Oftentimes, reality does not live up to that negative expectation.
EN: You were dealing with your mother’s suicide – the least our society could do is offer support, but you were warned to be ready for potentially the precise opposite of support.
SM: That’s why the psychologist, Rabbi, and family friends all suggested we say it was a sudden death. They thought we would encounter stigma.
EN: This assumption has got to be based off of experience.
SM: I’m sure it is. In our Jewish circles, there is no excuse for this stigma to be happening.
EN: You discussed in your speech that many times after therapy, you came back to your dorm room exhausted, ready to do nothing except focus all of your energy on existing. A lot of people – delegitimizing mental health treatment – would push back on that. It’s talking; talking is not work. What do you tell them?
SM: Some of the most highly valued jobs in our society are essentially jobs of talking, such as celebrities, lawyers, news reporters, authors, and politicians – much of what they do in the public eye is talk. Whoever says talk is not work and therefore therapy is not work should also not respect many of the most highly esteemed positions in our society. Since talking has now been established as work, talking about your vulnerabilities and things that drive your emotions, how much more so is that work?
Additionally, therapy isn’t just talk. It’s acting on commitments to behavioral changes, relationship changes. Even rebuilding the way your brain works.
EN: What do you recommend for those who are asked, “Why are you going to therapy?”
SM: That’s kind of like asking someone “Why are you going to the doctor’s office?” Sit down and explain to them what therapy actually is and all of the training the therapist went through.
EN: You said in your speech that you came to classify your life in terms of post-PTSD Shanee and pre-PTSD Shanee. Can you please elaborate? Is this a helpful approach?
SM: Definitely not. This stemmed from the increasing frustration I felt as I got more and more into the healing process. I had months of just dealing with PTSD. Then I started to get better, which meant there were moments when I wasn’t dealing with PTSD and then there were days and then there were weeks where PTSD did not affect me. After a week of feeling in control of my life, going back to not being in control was very frustrating. This last part was the hardest part of my entire (PTSD) experience. I had to learn how to forgive myself for taking longer than I wanted to heal and for feeling so out of control throughout the healing process.
EN: Maybe the most important aspect to getting healthier is getting to the point of not blaming yourself. I used to say, for example, that this is my brain so this is my fault. It is on me to get my mental health under control. I didn’t realize it at the time, but wow that mindset was damaging.
SM: There is a lot of overlap here with many mental illnesses. PTSD, OCD, Anxiety can all relate to this.
EN: A message you came back to often in your speech is that you asked for and received help, and it was game-changing to get that emotional support. You were imploring people not to wait around but to ask for the help they deserve. Are you worried that people will ask and not receive help?
SM: Of course I’m worried. I’m worried when I send someone to therapy that maybe it’s not to the right person, that when I send someone to a psychiatrist, maybe they get on the wrong medication. Everything is a balance. I don’t think it’s realistic that someone will ask for support and not eventually find support. Maybe the first time, maybe the second time, maybe the first five times they won’t, but even that’s worth it at the end when they do. Eventually you will find the right support, whether it be through an organization or through a person. And, hopefully, as time goes on and society continues to improve, more people will become the right people and it will become easier.
You have to keep in mind what you are worth and deserve. Keep fighting for someone who does want to help.
EN: On a similar concern, you said in your speech, “So many fear to lose their jobs or fear to lose their prospect of someone marrying or loving them or fear they will be shunned from institutions, friendships and communities.” Until we can right our communities, these are very fair fears. Why should someone ask for help despite these worries?
SM: 1) Sometimes these fears are not founded. In my case, if I acted on these fears – none of which became a reality – I would be in a really terrible place.
2) It is precisely because of these worries and fears that we need to actually speak up and ask for help. We need to confront that if this is the reality, it needs to be changed. Part of that is that some people are going to have to be brave and step up. I don’t consider myself one of these people because I was not shunned from anything, but there are people who will be and those people are going to be changing our society. And for those people, perhaps this is a little blunt, but at the end of the day, losing your job is better than losing your life. Then you can be an agent for change and you can fix a broken system instead of you yourself staying broken. Many people do not act due to these fears and suffer their whole lives, so I think that’s not the solution. The solution is that sometimes you have to go for it even if it means there is going to be a consequence.
EN: Something which I had to go back and watch again in your speech because I couldn’t believe with how much poise you said it is, “We must not accept a world where a mom is too scared to tell someone that she does not want to live out of fear that she will get looked down upon.” I can’t imagine a harder topic to talk about. How do you allow yourself to be able to talk about this with such poise?
SM: That was the toughest line in my speech. I needed to let people access my emotions. I needed to say that and say it with conviction because I really believe every word in that sentence. It is personal. It’s not a disconnected idea that my mom died by suicide and now I ask for change. It’s important that I’m not hiding behind anything like I ask others not to do.