TORONTO — Vladimir Fiser and Marika Ferber, the elderly Jewish couple who jumped to their deaths from an Etobicoke apartment building last week, had high risk factors for suicide, said Baycrest Health Sciences’ chief of psychiatry.
“Those with physical illness, impaired functions, and have difficulty with their medications have a high risk factor,” Dr. Robert Madan said.
He added that as Holocaust survivors, their risk was also higher.
A study done by University of Toronto and Baycrest, which appeared in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, in 2007, showed there is an increase rate of suicide and suicide attempts among the elderly who were exposed to the Holocaust.
Fiser, 89 and Ferber 84, who were married, were found at the base of their apartment building at 8 a.m. Oct. 29. Suicide notes were later found by police in the couple’s 18th-floor apartment.
Born in Croatia, they were friends as youngsters, but were reportedly separated in 1941 when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia.
Fiser’s father and many of his family members were killed during the war, and he fled to Italy, where he was a war refugee until the Germans invaded in 1943. He was then smuggled to Switzerland by a sympathetic police officer and spent the remainder of the war there.
They each moved to Israel after the war and married someone else, and each lost a spouse to cancer. They then turned to each other and married.
Fiser eventually earned a master’s degree in social work in Toronto, where he worked in a psychiatric hospital, and Ferber, who’s wartime story is not known, was a ballerina and teacher.
In recent years, Fiser suffered from heart problems, and Ferber had chronic back and leg pain. She needed the assistance of a walker or wheelchair, and her husband took her daily for injections for pain relief.
One neighbour said that they were in love, but were “tired and in pain.”
Madan said mental illness and depression is almost always a factor in later-stage suicide, “and it is important to screen for this. People almost always give warning signs.
“People should not be afraid to ask if they think someone is at risk for suicide. It is a myth that asking someone about suicide plants an idea in their head. It is important to start a conversation.”
There is lots of help available in the community, he said.
The Canadian Coalition for Seniors’ Mental Health (www.ccsmh.ca) has put out a toolkit on suicide prevention and intervention, Madan said.
Richard Cummings, executive director of Jewish Family & Child, said that when he read the story of Fiser and Ferber, who were donors to JF & CS, he was “particularly saddened by the poignant love story.
“It is always sad to hear about desperation that leads to such an unfortunate ending. I am also saddened when I hear about families who were unable to reach out. At the same time, I am humbled that I do not know their story or their circumstances.”