June 19, 2024
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Rabbi Shalom Hammer Addresses Mental Health Issues at CBY

Last Wednesday evening, Congregation Bnai Yeshurun welcomed Rabbi Shalom Hammer to discuss the delicate topics of mental health and suicide awareness. Rabbi Hammer shared the story of his daughter Gila, a vibrant, adventurous and beautiful young woman who, on December 5, 2019, took her own life at the age of 18.

When introducing Rabbi Hammer, Rabbi Ari Zahtz of Bnai Yeshurun spoke of the urgent need to eliminate the stigma of suicide, especially as it exists in the Jewish community, and continue to propel the conversation forward.

“I think that having these conversations and events and talking about it publicly helps people realize that it’s an illness and it’s not something to be ashamed of, similar to one who suffers from a physical illness,” said Rabbi Zahtz. “The more people see that people like Rabbi Hammer and others in our community are open and discuss it, and deal with it head-on, I think then people will realize that it is an illness.”

Rabbi Hammer began the lecture by describing the two extreme reactions to the worst tragedy a parent can face—that of the death of a child. The first reaction, he explained, is complete inaction fueled by paralyzing grief. The second reaction is the exact opposite—to become proactive, to do something, to speak about the tragedy and find ways to commemorate the loved one who died.

Within three days of sitting shiva for Gila, Rabbi Hammer decided to take the latter route. His goal, he explained, was not only to help people understand who his daughter had been, but to help, and hopefully prevent, others from suffering a similar fate.

He spoke of Judaism’s most valuable gift, which is life, and the paramount obligation to preserve it. He went on to explain how the vast majority of people who die by suicide do not actually want to die but are unable to see any other options. However, he said, if we can find a way to offer even a glimmer of hope to someone who is struggling, then we hold the power to possibly preserve that valuable gift of life.

The fastest growing population of suicides is 16- to 24-year-olds. Some of the reasons for the increase in this age group are the pressures of growing up and the fact that their brains, and even their thoughts, are simply not fully developed, causing them to make impulsive decisions.

Before discussing the tragic series of events that eventually led to Gila’s death, Rabbi Hammer strongly encouraged the audience to ask questions when he was done in order to help break the stigma.

Gila’s troubles began in high school, as they do for many young people. She suffered several traumatic events, which she was too embarrassed to share with her parents and friends. Sadly, the longer a trauma goes untreated, the harder it becomes to treat the victim.

Gila’s behavior soon began to shift, but in 11th grade she started seeing a therapist. Rabbi Hammer explained that there are two main components of successful therapy: consent and chemistry between patient and therapist. Gila’s relationship with her therapist seemed to lack both and she only attended a few sessions before she decided not to continue. Towards the end of 11th grade, after she refused to return to therapy, her situation, in Rabbi Hammer’s words, “exploded.”

Unfortunately, the two people she trusted the most, her parents, were also the ones she regularly lashed out at, both physically and verbally. During one particular instance she threw a glass jar at her father, ultimately leaving him with a scar. For him, he said, the scar represents the only physical thing he has left of her.

Often, following these episodes, Gila would leave her parents apologetic notes telling them how much she loved them, begging for their forgiveness and asking them to save her.

Unable to get the appropriate help to deal with her trauma, Gila began to self-harm. Self-harm typically indicates that a person may be in acute danger and urgently needs help. Despite all the professionals Rabbi Hammer and his wife consulted, the word “suicide” was never used, nor were the serious implications of self-harm ever adequately explained to them.

After further mental health decline and failed treatment attempts, Gila appeared to have, according to her father, “fallen through the chairs,” caught up in a bureaucracy poorly designed for mental illness. The system was not designed to provide the help she so desperately needed.

By this point, many of her friends had moved on in life, preparing for new
adventures, making plans for their futures and getting ready for the army and college. But Gila was forced to remain at home, stuck, still unable to get the help she required.

One evening, shortly after giving a dvar Torah at a party for her grandparents, Gila took steps to end her life. While she immediately told her mother what she had done, it was already too late.

In his final thoughts for the evening, Rabbi Hammer shared some invaluable lessons. He stressed the importance of engaging with others on the topic of mental health and suicide in order to effect real change. He told parents that if their kids feel they cannot cope with life, they must take them seriously.

He spoke of the importance of mental health first aid (MHFA). “MHFA is the initial help given to someone who is developing a mental health problem, experiencing a worsening of an existing mental health problem or a mental health crisis. First aid is given until appropriate professional support is received or until the crisis resolves.” If proper protocols had been in place when Gila sought help, it might have led to a different and less tragic outcome.

He implored the audience to learn and research exactly where to go for help and guidance when a loved one is suffering. But just as important is knowing where to avoid going, as time is of the essence when someone is in crisis. The faster you get someone the help they need, the likelier their chances of a better outcome.

To learn more about Rabbi Hammer and his mission, visit https://rabbihammer.com/portfolio-items/truths-my-daughter-taught-me/, https://www.facebook.com/rabbihammer or https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCN5oWx1lIrrjkaNs9R8KtjA.

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