Let’s Talk About Mental Health Stigma in the Orthodox Community
It’s great to be part of a community. It can make you feel like you’re not alone, like you’re among people who get you and your life experience. In a community, especially our various Jewish communities, you have people to turn to, who will who will mobilize for you and share your joys and your challenges.
Except when you don’t.
When your challenge happens to be depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or addiction, or another emotional challenge, things are different. Then the people around you have beliefs and attitudes that make it very hard for you to reach out and get help for your community. As a result, most of the time you pretend that everything is fine while you suffer, ashamed and isolated on the inside. What makes this so absurd is that, whether or not they know it, everyone has someone in their life who suffers the same way. More people suffer from some form of mental illness every year than from the flu, and over your lifetime your chance of having some episode is around 50/50.
The stigma against mental illness is not a problem specific to the Jewish community, nor is there evidence that it is any more prevalent here than in other communities. In fact, we’ve made much progress over the years in addressing it. However, stigma is still a community issue that we can only address together. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time in which organizations and individuals who work or live with mental illness work to educate the rest of us about issues related to mental illness. We are also in the middle of Sefirat HaOmer, a time in which we try to correct in ourselves the failure of Rabbi Akiva’s students to treat each other with dignity. It seems like appropriate time, then, to take a closer look at how the stigma against mental illness affects us and our fellow community members.
If you are battling a mental illness, you have a double burden. Not only do you suffer from the disorder itself, but also from the stigma.
We don’t see other people’s mental illness the way we would see a cast on someone who’s been injured. But living with mental illness is hard at best, and sometimes it can be brutal. Mental illness can make you feel like someone drained all the color from the world and all the energy from your soul, like your limbs feel like lead and your brain is wading through impenetrable fog. It can make you feel like you’ve lost control because you’re constantly terrorized by worries that you know are irrational, but that just circle around you and get stronger when you try to chase them away. You might also have to deal with side effects, sometimes serious, from medications that you hate, but that you depend on to function. So many people who suffer from mental illness feel trapped, pathetic, overwhelmed or hopeless.
As if that weren’t enough, though, if you are battling a mental illness, you have a double burden. Not only do you suffer from the disorder itself, but also from the stigma. You might have to push through your illness and pretend that you’re perfectly fine, in a way that no one would expect from someone with a physical illness. Because of the stigma against mental illness, you might live in fear that someone will notice or figure out the pain you are in. If your child has emotional or behavioral problems, you may have to endure regular judgments, spoken and unspoken, about your parenting. You may also have internalized the stigma from around you and be judging and belittling yourself. Perhaps worst of all, stigma may be preventing you from getting help at all, something that causes people unnecessary pain and isolation and in some cases tragically ends in suicide.
Stigma is everywhere. One study found that 70% of employers would hesitate to hire someone with a mental illness. This often means that people have to keep their illness a secret and sneak out to psychiatrist appointments for fear of losing their jobs. In our own communities, people who are dating for marriage with a known mood or anxiety disorder can have an extremely hard time finding someone who will date them. Even doctors demonstrate stigma toward mental illness. A study published just two months ago found that the same doctors who effectively help patients manage chronic physical illnesses like diabetes neglect to follow up with their patients when their diagnosis is depression.
The most important thing that we can do to reduce the stigma of mental illness is to talk about mental illness.
There are many reasons why people with mental illness are stigmatized. One is that they are perceived as dangerous. Much of that has to do with the media, who, whenever there is a mass shooting, are quick to label the perpetrator “mentally ill” (often to counter the gun control narrative). Another reason for the stigma is that many people perceive mental illness as less real than other illnesses and its symptoms are more within the person’s control. In religious communities, people are more likely to look at mental illness as reflecting some sort of moral flaw. In many Jewish communities, the stigma around mental illness also has a lot to do with marriage and fear of introducing mental illness into the gene pool. That means that parents siblings of someone with an emotional disorder are also stigmatized.
What Can We Do?
The most important thing that we can do to reduce the stigma of mental illness is to talk about mental illness. For many of us, this may require go out and educating ourselves about it (see sidebar for resources). The more that parents, educators, rabbis, leaders and everyone else talks about mental illness, the harder it will be for us to ignore it. Those with mental illness in their immediate family, can also make home a safe space where siblings or parents can be open about their experiences.
Every one of us needs to be reminded that mental illness is real and that people can’t magically get over the symptoms. At the same time, we need to know that treatment is an available, effective and respectable option. We must stop using words like “crazy” or “bipolar” in a pejorative way, and tell our children and everyone else to stop as well. We also need to remember that we have no idea how hard another person has it before we instinctively judge him or her.
Over the years, different people who have suffered from various forms of psychological problems have boldly come forward to talk about their experience for the benefit of the public. Some notable examples include Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot’s 2001 Jewish Action article about depression, Temimah Zucker’s writing on eating disorders, and Ruth Roth’s recent incredibly powerful essay for the Jewish Week on losing her son to suicide. However, it can’t keep being that we carry stigma against people with mental illness, but that we rely on them to take responsibility for standing up to end it. Now it’s time for all of us to start talking.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Link of NJ
Dr. Bin Goldman is a licensed clinical psychologist with offices in Teaneck and on the Upper West Side. He specializes in comprehensive psychological evaluations and psychotherapy. Dr. Goldman is also Visiting Scholar and Clinical Psychology Supervisor at Teachers College at Columbia University. You can reach him at (973) 869–9246, email@example.com, or visit his website, bingoldman.com.
Time to Change
This organization is “England’s biggest programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination.” Take a look at their pages on Mental Health and Stigma or on Personal Stories. They also have an incredible #smallthings campaign, which stresses that small things make a big difference in supporting someone with mental health challenges. Visit their pledge wall to see people’s personal pledges to do something small to support others with mental illness and to make your own.
Mental Health America
This organization promotes mental health through prevention, early identification and intervention for those at risk. This link is for their Mental Health Month 2016 page. Check out the infographics linked to on the right-side menu. Also check out their #mentalillnessfeelslike page for loads of eye-opening tweets about what it’s like to live with mental illness.
For even more resources, visit bingoldman.com/awareness