Taking (many) steps against mental illness
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Taking (many) steps against mental illness

There must be a heaven, because where else could Michael be now?"

That’s what a friend said about Michael Jakovich, who killed himself at age 43 in Florida by throwing himself in front of a van. He had just been released, on Aug. 5, ‘003, from a psychiatric clinic, with no money, no medications, and only a bus pass.

His wife, Elena, had been frantically phoning the clinic not to let Michael go because he was talking about suicide. She was five minutes away from the clinic when Michael was released. He died from his injuries three weeks later, leaving a son, Nathan, now 9, who still hasn’t been told how his father died.

Michael had been a teacher in Florida, dealing with troubled children, and he was evidently much loved. At an emotional memorial service shortly after he died, more than 350 children, family, and friends attended — and talked about him for hours. Michael was buried next to his father at Beth El Cemetery in Paramus. Rabbi Lewis Frishman, who had bar mitzvahed Michael, officiated.

Michael’s family will be supporting an "Out of the Darkness" overnight walk of ‘0 miles, starting at dusk on Saturday, June 8, and ending the next day, at dawn. The walk is sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Its purpose, according to its Website, is not only to raise money to help cure or prevent mental illness, but to " make a loud, proud statement that we can and must take steps to bring suicide and mood disorders OUT OF THE DARKNESS."

The walk will begin at the Brooklyn Bridge, pass through Manhattan and Central Park, and end at the George Washington Bridge. Each participant must pay $50 to register; students can pay only $35. (To register, phone 888-843-6837.) AFSP hopes each walker will raise at least $1,000.

By coincidence, another walk — against mental illness in general, not just suicide — will begin the morning of June 8 at the Duck Pond in Ridgewood. It’s sponsored by Taking Strides Against Mental Illness, with Mary and state Senate President Richard Codey serving as honorary chairs. Money raised will be donated to NARSAD, formerly known as the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression. Volunteers need not register, and no donations are required.

The organization was recently started by Rebecca Ehrlich, reports her mother, Harryet, both of Wayne. "Rebecca still struggles with the painful and debilitating symptoms of bipolar disorder," she said. Rebecca herself, who is now leading a normal life, calls mental illness "a stigmatizing, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and frightening illness."

Whether or not Jews are especially prone to mental illness and suicide is not known, although The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is studying a group of Jewish families to try to identify any genetic link to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

"We are not focusing on the Jewish population because we think there is an increased risk for schizophrenia in this community," according to doctors there as reported on their Website. "We are focusing on the Jewish population because the community has evolved from a limited number of ancestors, and because Jewish individuals have historically married individuals of the same ethnic background. This similarity in ethnic background allows researchers to more easily locate disease-causing genes in specific chromosome regions."

The report continues: "The exciting thing that could come out of a gene discovery is a more complete understanding of the causes of mental illness. If we can understand the biochemical basis of these disorders, scientists have the potential to develop treatments that are much more effective. In addition, we hope that determining the biological basis of mental illness will help reduce stigma."

Michael’s mother, Elaine Brooks of Guttenberg, interviewed by phone, said that "Michael reached out to troubled children, and he didn’t realize how much good he was doing. He was much loved."

Michael grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., and graduated from a college in Florida cum laude. He was very busy, putting on entertainment skits and even TV programs. Eventually he became a teacher — teaching was something he loved.

But in Florida he got involved in a project to sell cellphones — perhaps to prove to his father that he, like him, could be a successful businessman — and gangsters wound up threatening his life. "He trusted everyone," says his mother, "and people stole from him." Diagnosed as bipolar, he entered a hospital for would-be suicides, and was then transferred to the clinic that released him prematurely.

After her son’s suicide, Brooks told people that her son had accidentally been killed by a van. "One of my very close Orthodox friends advised me to stick to the story that he died accidentally," she recalls. "There is a Jewish stigma concerning suicide. Judaism perceives the act of suicide as murder against the body. Jewish law prohibits those who commit such acts from being buried with the general population in Jewish cemeteries."

But, she notes, more and more Jewish scholars believe that suicides suffer from mental illness, and the illness, not the individual, is responsible for the suicide — and such unfortunates may be buried with the rest of the Jewish community.

Brooks, who apologized several times for weeping during the phone call, said that many of Michael’s friends and relatives will take part in the walk, including his widow and her friends, who will fly up from Florida. The group call themselves "Michael’s Messengers."

Where to turn for help

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s hotline is (8000 ’73-8’55.

The hotline of Psychiatric Emergency Screening Care Plus NJ Inc.@Bergen Regional Medical Center, ’30 E. Ridgewood Ave, Paramus, NJ 0765′, is (’01) ‘6’-4357.

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