Spring is finally here; though, arguably, we never really had a satisfying winter. Sunlight and warmth enter through our windows, and every day feels like it holds new possibility and potential. Especially in New York, when the tables and chairs are set up outside local restaurants, and more people start to gather at the parks, it feels like the city comes alive again.
Unfortunately, for some, it is virtually impossible to feel the joy of spring. For those who suffer from anxiety or depression, or other mental illnesses, the beauty outside only serves to further alienate them from the world. It highlights the fact that everyone else “seems” to be okay, but that there is something different, or even wrong, with them.
In the Jewish world, we don’t do enough to discuss mental illness. It still holds incredible stigma, and we are scared to utter certain words aloud (depression, panic, bipolar, breakdown, schizophrenia…) for fear of permanently labeling ourselves or others. We have no problem sharing our stories about struggles with weight issues, heart disease, or diabetes, but very few are brave enough to share their own experiences with mental illness.
Thus, anyone who is suffering, suffers alone.
Let’s take the example of diabetes – when someone is diagnosed, they tend to be vigilant about taking their medications, visiting doctors regularly, and making the lifestyle changes that are necessary to live a long, healthy life. Yet, when one suffers from a mental illness, it is much more challenging to feel that the care, medication, and doctors visits are valid and legitimate. It is especially difficult, in our busy, overachieving culture, to feel that the lifestyle changes are safe to make without being unfairly judged by others.
Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen, in an article entitled, “Judaism and Mental Illness” (Journal of Pastoral Care and Health, Dec, 2008), shares some harrowing statistics: One in four families has someone who has experienced serious, prolonged mental illness. One in ten people has experienced a form of mental illness sometime in his/her life, the most common of which is major depression. And, unlike the general population, mental illness seems to be equally prevalent in both Jewish men and Jewish women.
Just as Rabbi Cohen does in his article, I then think of the 500+ families in my congregation. This statistic would mean that approximately 125 families know the pain of having a family member with severe mental illness. Yet, I could count on one hand the number of people who have actually discussed anything of the sort with me. Why do we continue to be so ashamed to discuss our struggles with mental illness?
Luckily, some strides are indeed being made, especially on the organizational level. The Department of Jewish Family Concerns, at the Union for Reform Judaism, published a wonderful resource entitled, R’fuat HaNefesh: Caring for the Soul, which contains texts, liturgy, and suggestions for discussion on these issues in the congregation. And the UJA-Federation of New York ran a wonderful program in December, 2010, entitled, “Shabbat of Wholeness, Holiness, and Wellness,” which encouraged rabbis and congregations to focus on mental health issues for the weekend. I was proud to participate, preach on the topic, and include a number of beautiful readings in our service that evening.
One of the prayers we used in the service was quite powerful:
Those who suffer from mental illnesses know the fragility of life. And they know a lot more, too. They know it can be 85 degrees outside and the sun is shining – but they can’t feel the warmth because their heart is in winter. They can be in a room flooded with streaming light but they cannot see it, because their soul is dark with pain. They can walk in a beautiful garden but they can’t feel or sense any of the beauty, because it is as if a giant thorn is stuck in their foot and with every step, there is only pain. The pain is real, and the illness is real – an illness of the mind and of the psyche.
May we open our ears so that we hear the pain in the voice of those who are mentally ill. May we open our eyes so that we see what is going on in front of us and truly see the suffering in the eyes of another. May we open our hands to act on what we see and offer help to those in need. May we open our mouths to respond to the emotional pain in those who suffer, and may we offer healing words of love and comfort. (adapted from Rabbi James L. Simon)
Perhaps, this week, we will feel empowered to reach our hands out to those who need an extra hand through the darkness they are experiencing. Perhaps we will feel brave enough to share our own struggles with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. Perhaps we will do our own small part to remove the shame and stigma associated with mental illness, so that all can feel safe, loved, and able to take a step on the road back towards the light.