Dear Dr. Yael,
On both a personal and professional level it seems to me that there is a real stigma, still, about mental illness in our community. Perfection is valued at all costs, and even minor flaws are not tolerated. And yet, neglecting one’s physical and mental health is a tremendous sin.
Could you please address this issue?
Thank you for writing. While there is still a stigma about mental illness in society at large, you are correct that the stigma seems greater in the Orthodox Jewish world. We have made strides, but there is a long way to go.
Stigma causes people to be embarrassed about something that is out of their control and we, as a community, need to continue to create more awareness of the fact that mental illness is a disease and that no one should ever be blamed for it or treated badly because of it.
Yes, marrying someone with a mental illness comes with its own challenges and people have to be aware of what they are getting into, someone who is aware of his or her issues, is taking medication appropriately, and seeing a therapist, may be light years ahead of others with issues who are in total denial or oblivious.
We can all stand up against this stigma by following these ideas put forth by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health).
Talk openly about mental health. If you have a mental health illness and are strong enough to do so, talk about your experiences and the resources you have found helpful. If you are in the mental health field, help others by writing about different mental health illnesses and ways to seek help when needed.
Stop others from making demeaning comments regarding mental health issues and educate those who may not understand what mental health issues are.
Help others understand that using derogatory words, like crazy, is hurtful and unnecessary. Sometimes people use words without thinking and they simply need to be given alternatives. This should be done in a gentle manner, as most people do not react well to criticism.
Help others see that mental illness is not any different than physical illness. Most people will understand that you do not make fun of or treat people badly because they have cancer or diabetes, so why should they do so when one is suffering from a mental illness. Additionally, as we mentioned in a previous article, no one would tell someone with diabetes not to take their medication or the insulin they need, so the same should be applied to taking medication for ADHD, depression, anxiety, bi-polar or any other mental illness.
Model compassion for others with mental illness. Show people that they deserve our affection and compassion just like any other people who are suffering.
Help empower those that are suffering from mental illness. If someone discloses a mental illness to you, don’t run the other way, try to be supportive and a cheerleader for them.
Don’t hate yourself for having mental illness. It is not your fault and you did not do anything to deserve self-hatred. Be your own cheerleader and seek professional help to guide you to recovery.
It was just Tisha B’Av and we have to remember that the only way we can rebuild the Beis HaMikdash is to be inclusive and loving to all Jews. We, as a Klal, have stigmatized and boxed in almost every type of Jew and issue – we need to tear down those boxes and labels and reunite to bring Moshiach. May your question and this article bring us all one step closer! Hatzlocha!