In 2016, we saw a disturbing spike in suicides in the American Haredi community — and a flurry of speculation about the causes. Addressing this issue must be done with the greatest sensitivity. 75 suicides in a year is a statistic, but the reality is 75 individual tragedies. As a therapist with 20 years experience working with all parts of the observant community, I want to contribute my perspective to the debate, yet I do so with trepidation.
The Suicide Spike In Context
It’s important not to make broad judgements about a community based on suicide rates. Sweden, for example, has generally been regarded as an example of successful, well-functioning country. It ranks 8th in the world for standard of living according to the UN’s IHDI ranking. However, until recently, Sweden had one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, largely because of Seasonal Affective Disorder. The welcome decline since the beginning of the 21st century probably has more to do with UV lamps than a dramatic improvement in Swedish culture. Commentators should bear that in mind before ascribing the recent spike in suicides to whatever features of the Haredi lifestyle they don’t like.
It’s also important to look at the wider American context. The national suicide rate has been rising every year since the turn of the century. Things are getting so bad that average life expectancy for white Americans is actually falling for the first time since the AIDS epidemic, mainly as a result of suicide and the closely related opioid epidemic. A significant proportion of suicides in the Haredi community were drug-related. Indeed, in many cases, it’s hard to tell whether it was a true suicide or a drug overdose. One contributing factor seems to be the emergence of drug dealers living within Haredi communities, making access to drugs much easier than it has ever been. It may be that we are not so much witnessing a trend within the Haredi world, but the Haredi world giving in to trends from outside.
Risk Factors For Suicide
It’s a logical fallacy, however, to say that because a trend affects more than one community there aren’t individual factors involved that are specific to each one. There are definitely particular features of life in the Haredi community that can cause high levels of stress. In mainstream America, many people feel the pressures that come from “trying to have it all” and “keeping up with the Joneses.” In the Haredi world, a parallel phenomenon operates, but the objectives are different. In some parts of the community, because some men can profitably spend every day learning Torah, it is assumed that every man must try. In others, because some couples can have twelve children and maintain a well-organized home, that has become an ideal that the many try to live up to.
This brings us to the thorny issue of “the shift to the right.” Most Haredim have or had grandparents who do things Jewishly that they would never consider doing or didn’t do things they would never consider not doing. As individual communities grow from a founding stock of a few hundred to tens of thousands of members, they can afford to be lot pickier about what they demand. You can see this phenomenon quite easily just by looking at what hats people wore in pictures from the 1950s. There is good reason to think that people who might have been able to find a niche in earlier decades feel left out of many “one size fits all” communities today. Some of the most harrowing suicides in recent years have been people, especially mothers, who felt unable to live with the community of their birth but couldn’t find a middle ground where they could maintain relationships with family and friends.
Finally, we cannot avoid looking at the sad issue of abuse. There is a strong link between incidents of childhood trauma and sexual abuse and higher rates of both attempted and actual suicides. This is one of the main reasons that, sadly, suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents. There is also a well-documented and strong correlation between childhood trauma and substance abuse among all communities. Unfortunately, some parents minimize or deny their children’s experiences as victims of abuse. Some carry with them their own history of abuse, and learning that their child is a victim is too much to bear. Other parents simply cannot comprehend how anyone could intentionally hurt a child. If this stops them getting the help their children need, the results are potentially tragic. To be clear, I do not mean to imply that every victim of abuse will go on to commit suicide, nor that every person who contemplates suicide was victim of abuse. However, the link exists in many cases.
I wouldn’t say that this creates conditions for mental health that are markedly worse than the wider world, at least not yet. However, they certainly present their unique set of challenges and issues, which I have learned to deal with in my work. As Tzvi Gluck, director of Amudim, an organization that works with victims of sexual abuse and addiction, eloquently said in his article last summer, “we cannot throw up our hands in frustration and let the darkness win.”
This story "Taking Haredi Suicide Out Of The Shadows" was written by Marcia Kesner.