This week’s local news brought the tragic tale of a Miami area man, Tzvi Ference, who committed suicide by driving his car head on into a semi truck on the Florida Turnpike. This occurred after the man had made previous attempts and threats of suicide, yet apparently was never given effective resources to help him genuinely heal his depression. His cries for help seem to have led to more rejection and dejection rather than anyone providing truly enlightened guidance to help him feel better about himself and his life. This individual was part of a Jewish Temple community on Miami Beach and the son of a University of Miami physician, his mother Tamar.
According to the article published in the Miami Herald, Tzvi Ference was described as a deeply religious man by his rabbi, Marc Philippe, of Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach. Unfortunately, he was also deeply troubled and finding his efforts to get help met with rejection and ostracism.
Tzvi wrote in a social media post on Facebook “I was trying to reach out to the Rabbi and other members because I was feeling lonely and depressed. Instead of receiving calls back I was ignored and they felt threatened by me reaching out for help.” Tzvi Ference was banned from the temple for two months because of “harassing comments” that Rabbi Philippe declined to describe. Philippe explained the situation by stating that Ference was calling and texting in a way that made girls uncomfortable. The Herald report adds that four years ago the University of Miami issued a “safety advisory,” warning people on campus about Ference, then 22, stating that he had “repeatedly harassed University students and officials.” Tzvi, a former student at the university, was banned from UM campuses. Thus, a troubled young man seeking compassion from others was faced with rejection.
Mainstream religion is a source of comfort and community for many people, however, there can also be a shadow side to religion. Religion often promotes the idea that a person is being judged by God and is in some way abandoned, rejected, or disapproved of by the Supreme Being. When religious precepts are interpreted in those ways it can feed into that sense of separation, loneliness, or worthlessness that are common with depression. Being highly religious can mean a person is committed to trying to attain an unrealistic standard of conduct or achievement in order to gain approval or acceptance from God, as the person conceptualizes his/her higher power or the Supreme Being. This can sometimes be a sign of a lack of self-worth, yet religious leaders may ignore or overlook this since they may view such “religious” behavior as a desirable sign of devotion and righteousness.
Mainstream medicine tends to look at symptoms of psychological distress as signs of a biochemical imbalance that doctors will treat with psychiatric medications. Unfortunately, using drugs to manipulate biochemistry doesn’t address any of the causes of psychological distresses, since it doesn’t even address the biochemical causes of biochemical imbalances. Biochemical imbalances are not caused by not consuming psychiatric drugs. The drugs can only temporarily mask or compensate for whatever is truly occurring, and they create the risk of dependency and dangerous withdrawal symptoms. These medications themselves are associated with adverse psychological symptoms, so they can often compound the difficulties being experienced by the individual. Thoughts, beliefs, feelings, emotions, and social stresses as well as dietary imbalances, drug and chemical exposures, and compromised body systems can all contribute to psychological disturbances. However, clergy and medical professionals typically have limited training and understanding toward addressing the various issues that may need to be addressed in order to adequately assist someone.
When a person is experiencing psychological distress there is a good chance that such an individual will be directed toward either medical professionals or religious authorities for help and guidance. However, these helping professionals may have a limited or distorted understanding of what is fostering a person’s psychological distress and may have a lack of resources in their repertoire to truly help that person. According to statements from Tzvi’s sister, he had been in therapy and on a variety of medications since the age of 16. If we wish to improve our ability to help people who are suffering and desire to reduce acts of self-harm or harm toward others, it would be wise to adopt a more holistic approach to mental health and not remain confined by dogmatic or narrowly focused paradigms. Studies have shown that use of antidepressant medications actually increases the risk of suicide. Is that really a rational approach to treating people experiencing emotional challenges?
Taking time to understand the thoughts and feelings (both conscious and unconscious) of a person in distress is a vital step toward helping such an individual. In the case of Tzvi Ference it appears that two institutions that he would have expected to offer him some form of help acted out of fear rather than compassion, banning him from their facilities and acting to protect their communities from exposure to him, yet failing to provide help that would address his safety and well-being. These types of institutions may wish to review their understanding of psychological disturbances and their protocols for responding to the presentation of individuals who are exhibiting cries for help. The need to protect staff, students, or congregants is understandable, yet the best way to protect the well-being of everyone is to address the real needs of the person who appears disturbing so that person won’t be stuck in that disturbed state.