Great Neck embraces hope and healing to end the suffering
“My son loved life, he would stand on the beach with arms wide open, ready to take on the world,” said Ilana Avinari. “He touched the lives of others in Israel, Vienna and here at home.”
Daniel Avinari of Great Neck was just 27 years old when he died from an accidental overdose this past Father’s Day. He is one of too many young people in the community who have succumbed to addiction. With each passing, a devastated family is left behind to cope with the unimaginable.
Some of the most painful and destructive forces in a family are mental health challenges that lead to suicide and drug overdoses. At least a dozen young adults from Great Neck, ages 16 to 28, have lost their lives in the past five years.
Until now, these families have stayed in the shadows, dealing with their quiet anguish. Daniel’s mother is still grieving, but she is unwilling to stay silent. She is committed to make meaning of Daniel’s life and legacy. She knows that there are other Great Neck parents who can learn from her experience, and she is willing to share hers and offer support. To that end, she has accepted the invitation to speak at a program that is being planned for early next year.
In so many ways, Daniel’s mother is just like countless other moms. She is a devoted grandmother of three and has a career in health care that she enjoys. Her son Daniel graduated from Great Neck South and Baruch College. He lived in the city for a few years, traveled and enjoyed making new friends. He grew in a close-knit family, with loving grandparents, parents and siblings. Daniel struggled with anxiety, ADHD and came out openly as gay at 17.
Mental-health issues leading to addiction, overdose and suicide leave indelible and permanent scars on families and loved ones. No one is impacted more than the parents. There is an immediate vortex of blame, anguish and regret, and so many unanswered questions, such as “What more could I have done to prevent this?”
Clearly, more can and should be done to raise awareness and provide support to families. One week after Daniel’s death, another mom in the community suggested that Ilana attend the June 24 Amudim program at Shaare Zion Synagogue. There, she realized the importance of the message and vowed that she would do more to support other parents dealing with their children’s addiction and mental illness.
“People are afraid to talk about it,” she said. “Their fear keeps the problems hidden, and the families are suffering.”
A similar fear applies to families dealing with mental illness resulting in suicide.
“Suicide is still surrounded by myth and misinformation, carrying the shame of mental illness and the shock of sudden death,” according to advocate Sarah Tucker. “The first reaction is almost always, ‘Why?’ Why did this tragedy happen? What or who is responsible? And the terrible uncertainty: Could I have done something to save that person’s life?”
Dr. Douglas Jacobs of Harvard Medical School said that the grieving process after suicide is fundamentally different from other kinds of loss.
“There are layers of emotion,” noted Jacobs. “From loss to anger, to ‘If I was good enough, my loved one would not have left me.’”
Ilana and other Great Neck parents have many common concerns about the pressures facing the next generation. New sources of stress and stimulation come from the Juul hidden in their pockets, to increasing marijuana use, the constant stimulation of video games and social media. All of these chemicals and technologies are affecting the growing brains of our young people, causing myriad reasons for parents to become alarmed and concerned. None of us knows where to draw the line. We are in uncharted territory.
Clearly, education and awareness regarding mental illness and addiction can save lives. Suicide and overdose can be prevented. Addiction can be treated. Emotional pain can be alleviated.
According to mental health advocates like Joanne Harpel, treatment of mental illness and addiction can be compared to treatment of other illnesses, such as heart disease or cancer. Individuals can die from a complication of heart disease, diabetes, depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. We can reduce the overall risks for all of these illnesses, even if we don’t have the ability to prevent a specific individual from dying.
Upcoming Community Forum on Mental Health
North Shore Action (NSA) will present Suicide Town Hall: Hope and Healing, dedicated to Daniel, on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. in the Great Neck Main Library community room. The free event will offer critical information, tips and resources to prevent suicide in adults and address mental-health challenges, including addiction. I will moderate the discussion, as well as the question and answers from the audience after the presentation.
Top experts in the field will be part of the panel, including representatives from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Long Island Crisis Center, Dr. Madelyn Gould and Dr. Shiphra Bakhchi.
Dr. Gould is the Irving Philips Professor of Epidemiology in Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where she directs the Community Suicide Prevention Research Group. She has a strong commitment to applying her research to program and policy development, and her research contributions in suicide contagion/clusters, screening and assessment of suicide risk, and crisis interventions have laid the groundwork for state and national suicide-prevention programs in the U.S. and abroad. She has received numerous awards from the American Association of Suicidology, including a lifetime achievement award for outstanding contributions to the field of suicide prevention. Since 1985, Dr. Gould has lived in Great Neck, where she and her husband raised three children who attended Great Neck Public Schools.
Dr. Bakhchi is a licensed clinical psychologist with degrees from Columbia University, New York University and a Master’s and Doctoral degree in psychology from Yeshiva University. Dr. Bakhchi has extensive training and experience in the treatment of depression, stress management and anxiety disorders. Her diverse background includes working with police officers and patients dealing with eating disorders. She is a Great Neck mother of three who speaks Farsi.
NSA member Dr. Andrea Katz has provided advice and input for the upcoming forum. A licensed psychologist in New York and Florida, Dr. Katz recently retired from a 32 1/2-year career as a psychologist and administrator at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, treating severely and persistently mentally ill adults. Assessment of suicidal ideation and behavior was part of her regular tasks, which also included individual and group therapy as well as working with families. Through NSA, Dr. Katz supports the importance of providing information to the community about suicide risk and prevention as an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed rather than hidden.
NSA is also planning an event that addresses overdose. Further information will appear in an upcoming issue.
Jacqueline Harounian, Esq., regularly contributes to the Great Neck Record. She recently obtained a degree in psychology, focusing on issues of addiction and mental health, and volunteered for the Long Island Crisis Center. She is a partner at Wisselman & Associates in Great Neck, with practice areas including dispute resolution and family law.