This story is one of a three-part series on mental health awareness in the Jewish community sponsored by the Investigative Journalism Fund. Read part-one here. The next installment will appear in print and online next week. 

Sam Langstein, 23, can trace his earliest thoughts of suicide to his eighth birthday.

“I remember looking out the window on my birthday and thinking ‘Another year older and I don’t want to be here,’” said the Long Island native. He grew up within the Modern Orthodox community, and attended Orthodox day schools. Despite the presence of a social worker at the schools he attended, he never sought help.

His situation continued to worsen. In 11th grade, he started thinking about suicide “frequently.” He also starting missing significant amounts of school, sleeping all day, drinking, getting high regularly and engaging in self-harm. Still, though he was displaying nearly all of the diagnosable signs of depression, his condition remained undetected.“I didn’t know what he [the social worker] was there for,” Langstein said. “As students, we received no introduction to him, and no information about where to go if we were having problems at home.” The students who acted out in class were the ones sent to the school counselor, he recalled. Langstein was a shy, quiet and well-behaved student. “It was a situation where the squeaky wheel got the grease,” he said.

“I slipped through the cracks, and they were huge cracks.”

“I slipped through the cracks, and they were huge cracks,” he said.

During his senior year of high school, he tried to drink himself to death on Purim, a Jewish holiday where having a post-Megillah-reading drink — or several — is the norm. Someone found him lying unconscious in an alleyway; at the hospital CT scans of his skull showed that he had fallen many times.

“It was incredibly embarrassing to have an ambulance parked outside my house,” he said. “When I came back to consciousness, all I remember thinking is ‘people are going to know.’ There is such a huge stigma against mental health problems in the community.”

When he returned to school after being released from the hospital, Langstein said, a rabbi joked about what had happened in front of several other students, saying: “Do you want to see Sam get really embarrassed? Ask him what happened on Purim.”

Sam Langstein can trace his earliest memories of depression to when he was 8-years-old. Courtesy of Sam Langstein

Though he began outpatient rehabilitation at a local clinic, he was treated “exclusively for the drug issue, not the mental health issue.” His depression and suicidal thoughts persisted.

After high school, he was strongly encouraged by the staff at his Orthodox high school to spend a gap year studying at a yeshiva in Israel. Langstein, the youngest of four brothers, all of whom had spent a gap year in Israel, clung to the opportunity to start fresh.
“I thought, ‘Everyone has problems in high school — when I go to Israel, I’ll find myself. Things will get better.”

They did not. Unmoored from parents, rehab and any consistent oversight at the Orthodox yeshiva he attended, his situation reached a crescendo.

Only weeks into his stay abroad, Langstein visited the Old City of Jerusalem, climbed to the top of one of the walls surrounding the historic holy site, surveyed the city built of white stone and etched in gold, and prepared to jump.

“So much of my life direction could have been altered with the proper care and attention.”

“In that moment, I thought of my family,” said Langstein. The words caught in his throat as he continued. “I didn’t want to do this to my family.”

Today, Langstein, a Brooklyn resident, works as a program operations associate at Footsteps, a Jewish nonprofit that helps those who have left the ultra-Orthodox community. (Langstein himself has since parted ways with the strictly Orthodox community.) He graduated from Hunter College in 2015 with a degree in psychology. After time spent in the hospital and intensive treatment for depression, suicide and anxiety, he said he is feeling “better than I’ve ever felt before.”

As he begins to revisit his experiences, the fight not to be reclaimed by his past is “a constant struggle.” He finds solace in a mental health support group launched last year by Rabbi Avram Mlotek who runs Base, a millennial outreach group. There, he has found the strength to start talking about his experiences.

He waited until now to speak out because he didn’t want his story to negatively impact his brothers’ prospects in the world of Orthodox matchmaking, or shidduchim (a poignant example of how deeply entrenched stigma and silence surrounding mental illness are in the Orthodox world). Now, with all three of his brothers married, he feels at liberty to tell his story.

Sam Langstein, a 23-year-old Brooklynite. Miriam Jacobson/JW

“I don’t want anyone to have to experience what I experienced,” he said, advocating that pressure be placed on school boards and administrators to ensure that their mental health counseling departments are equipped, current, and accessible to students. “So much of my life direction could have been altered with the proper care and attention.”

The suicides, the ODing — our community is starting to wake up,” he said. “These symptoms do not exist in a vacuum. At the core, there is a deep sadness, loneliness and stigma. I can’t fix this problem, but I can start to fight it.”

Still, he has begun to feel the “rumblings of change.” Grassroots organizations and support groups are rapidly materializing to fill the needs of those struggling with mental health and combat the stigma.

This story is one of a three-part series on mental health awareness in the Jewish community sponsored by the Investigative Journalism Fund. Read part-one here. The next installment will appear in print and online next week.