Let's Talk About Mental Health Stigma in the Orthodox Community

Picture of a young Hasid Jewish boy in Williamsburg, New York city.
Picture of a young Hasid Jewish boy in Williamsburg, New York city.

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, such as the various Jewish communities, you have people to turn to, 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, 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 from 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 -- probably a few people--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. 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, between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot in which we try to correct in ourselves the failure of Rabbi Akiva's students to treat each other with dignity. It seems like an appropriate time, then, to take a closer look at how the stigma against mental illness affects us and our fellow community members.

Double Jeopardy

We don't see other people's mental illness the way we would see a cast on someone who's been injured, but it's just as real. 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, 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 and 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 are judging and belittling yourself. Perhaps, worst of all, stigma may be preventing you from getting help altogether, something that causes people unnecessary pain and isolation and in some cases tragically ends in suicide.

Stigma Prevalence

Stigma is everywhere. One study found that 70 percent of employers would hesitate to hire someone with a mental illness. That's why people typically keep their illness a secret from their employers and have to 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 worse if they are taking any psychiatric medication. 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.

Reasons

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 and siblings of someone with an emotional disorder are also stigmatized.

What Can We Do?

The most important thing we can do to reduce the stigma of mental illness is to talk about mental illness. For many of us, this may require going 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. We need to stop using words like "crazy" or "bipolar" in a pejorative way, and tell our children and everyone else to stop as well. Those with mental illness in their immediate family can make home a safe space where siblings or parents can be open about their experiences. In addition, 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 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 suffer 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.

RESOURCES

Want to learn more and find out about what you can do? Check out these sites:

Time To Change
Two of the greatest things about this site are:
- The #Smallthings campaign, which stresses that small things make a big difference in supporting someone with mental health challenges. It includes a wall where people post their own small things that help them
- A pledge wall, where you can see others' personal pledges to do something small to support people with mental illness and also make your own pledge

Mental Health America
This site features, among other things:
- The incredible #mentalillnessfeelslike campaign, which gives you a window on what it's like to have mental illness in the form of real-time tweets sorted by disorders
- Resources for people who think they might need help, themselves, such as self-screening tools and useful self-help tools, like worksheets and tips

For even more resources, I've put together a page with lots of great videos, links and infographics that I'm sure you'll find helpful.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.