It’s Time The Jewish World Embraced Mental Health

Thanks to my readers who chose this article when I offered to write about any topic chosen by my Facebook fans.

Imagine that your whole body is tense.  The way you feel when you are stressed.  But constantly.  Consistently.  Day after day.

And while your whole body is tense, the tensest part is your neck.  Like your own body is trying to choke you.  You try and sigh, relax, meditate, breathe… nothing works.  You are afraid you may have a heart attack at 40 at the rate this is going.

This is the life of someone with an anxiety disorder.

Now imagine you are so low on energy that you can’t get out of bed.  You are just exhausted.  You’re not necessarily sad… more like neutral, like you have no emotions, like someone sucked them all out of you with a vacuum.  And people around you are calling you lazy for sleeping in or not working hard enough, and so you retreat even further into yourself.

This is just one day in the life of someone suffering from depression.

Now imagine that you are constantly irritable.  You don’t know why, but you get angry at every comment your wife or close ones say.  You want to yell and scream when they do the smallest thing wrong.  You can’t concentrate on anything for more than a minute and so you end up working on multiple things but never accomplishing one.  Your only escape is television or something that absorbs you.  But when you finally leave that world, you are back and more irritable than ever.

This is the life of a person with bipolar who is on the manic side of the cycle.

Now I want you to imagine something else: imagine that there are hundreds, thousands, or even more, of people in your community who go through these difficulties every day.  Imagine, even further, that they are not being treated, but are, instead, living in shame, afraid to expose this “weakness” of theirs.

And now imagine, if you will, that what I said is not an exaggeration.  That there are people who are living in tremendous pain and difficulty that could be avoided.  People who are suffering simply because they are not receiving the care they need.  People who are in pain because they were never told that there is nothing weak about accepting help.

Now imagine that even some leaders encourage this attitude.  That they push people to just “get over” their difficulties or to study Torah or pray in order to make them go away.

Imagine the same people who have to deal with anxiety, depression, mania, PTSD, schizophrenia, and every other difficulty, living in shame because they are guilty for their own emotions.

This is a reality for more people than we can imagine.  This is a day to day struggle for many within the orthodox community.  And while there have been many great strides in awareness (I’ve always been so proud that the I Have A Therapist campaign was so successful because of the orthodox, Hasidic Jews that helped get it rolling), there is still so much work to be done, still so much stigma to overcome, and still so much education that still needs to happen.

Judaism has always been, in a way, obsessed with health.  Saving your own or someone else’s life takes precedence over almost every mitzvah in the Torah.  Suddenly, when you save someone’s life on Shabbat by breaking it, you are making the day even holier.

The Rambam, who was also a trained physician, is famous both in the religious and secular worlds for his beliefs and theories about health.

Miracle story after miracle story revolves in some way around doctors and the physical health of their patients.

And yet… when it comes to mental health, there are crickets.  Silence.  Not necessarily stigma, but certainly not the powerful stories, the push to help others, the countless charitable organizations, that exist for those with physical health ailments.

There is, of course, absolutely no reason for this to be the case.  Because mental health is, whether we accept it or not, the same as physical health.  The brain is a part of our physical body, as are our nerves, and practically every other part of our body that creates mental difficulties.  Not to mention the vast amount of physical ailments a person can suffer from when their mental health erodes.

I’ve asked you to imagine all the difficulties a person with mental health problems may go through.

Now I want you to imagine something else.

Imagine that you can do something.  That you can improve things.  That you have the power to make the Jewish world healthier than it has been for generations.  Imagine that you can now solve more problems than any one miracle story ever solved.  Imagine that we have the power to make the Jewish community stronger than it has ever been.

And that is the beauty of the situation we find ourselves in: while mental health resources may be lacking, the more we talk about this subject, the more we encourage those around us to seek the help they need, the more we make suffering from depression no different than being physically sick, the more people will be helped.  The more happy marriages there will be.  The more happy people there will be.  The less suicides.  The more achdus.  The less lashon hara.

Practically every problem in the Jewish community could be lessened if we fully embraced mental health.  Lives would be saved.  People would treat each other better.

Imagine it.  Because, just like the problems, it is not so far away from you.





6 responses to “It’s Time The Jewish World Embraced Mental Health”

  1. daniel.saunders Avatar

    Thank you for this important post Elad and thanks to everyone who suggested it. It’s timely for me as I’m going through a tough patch with my own depression at the moment.

    I have long been saddened by the tendency of some people to treat mental illness as something that can be cured by living a Torah observant life. Whereas in reality mental illness just paralyzes one’s religious observance, the same as it paralyzes everything else in one’s life. Prayer, Torah study, acts of kindness, communal involvement, even normal family life can all become impossible with mental illness.

    Most secular books and websites I have read about depression start with a list of famous historical figures who suffered from it as if to reassure the reader, “You aren’t abnormal, you can still live a meaningful life.” It would mean a lot if Torah leaders (some of whom must, statistically speaking, have experience of mental illness in themselves or their families) would speak up. The former British Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks has briefly spoken of his experience of depression, which is a start.

  2. Shoshannah Avatar

    Elad and Daniel, it is true this can be managed with Torah because getting help for it is IN Torah. Think about the meditation of Isaac in the fields – people think meditation is a new age thing. It’s an ancient thing. There’s nothing wrong with talking to a professional and taking medicine if you have to. I personally believe, like people with Down syndrome, some souls are meant to be here to teach us patience, love and encouragement. I am reminded of the old butterfly story where a pedestrian finds a butterfly struggling out of the cocoon. He wants to help so he pulls off the encasement and the butterfly dies. It’s lungs never had the chance to be squeezed hard enough to come out breathing. I am sure I made a mess of that story but the point is the same. G-d loves every one of us and wants a personal relationship with us. Sure there are rules to life but the point is love, not law. I suffer from depression myself for different reasons. We need to help each other through these tough times which can be difficult but doable. L’Chaim!

  3. Art Tzad Avatar
    Art Tzad

    Thanks for this timely post, Mr. Chossid. I am at any of those mental states regularly, having had a terrible sequence of events, ending in the joyful saving of one Jewish life. Since my husbands unjust sentence during his terminal illness was reduced from 15 to 3 yrs., he was saved from a lingering death in detention, where Aleph in SoFla and myself became his only resources for legal and religious support, at the cost of placing my home of 30 years in NYC in state of imminent foreclosure/auction due to tax arrears, as all my funds went into support for him.

    Most days I can’t get out of bed, waiting for final notice, but E’s deportation back home has him in a safe place. I am spent and can’t get courage to reach out for help. Thanks for reminder that I did the mitzvah and now I am worthy to take care of myself too.

  4. Yona Avatar

    Hey Elad, thanks for the great post. Could you elaborate further though (perhaps in a new post) – how do you see this shift taking place, what do you think needs to happen practically?

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      I think there are a number of things that need to happen. I’ll try to list em here, although, you’re right a blog post would be the best place to really flesh it out:

      1. Awareness
      2. Education
      3. Education of leadership
      4. Institutional help (eg charities to help pay for treatment, etc)
      5. More frum therapists/psychiatrists
      6. Clear declarations from leaders about when to go to them for help and when to get psychological help.
      7. School psychologists

      There are probably many more, but that’s what I can think of off the top of my head.

  5. […] campaign, as well as a social network for people with bipolar.  I’ve written on my blog about mental health multiple […]

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