Mental illness, developmental disabilities are topics that aren’t going away any time soon

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Since the beginning of the month, the Jewish Light’s “Can We Talk?” quarterly series has focused on mental illness and developmental disabilities in the local Jewish community. In addition to weekly stories, the Light, in collaboration with the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council, hosted a panel discussion on this topic Monday, June 18.

None of us was sure what to expect in terms of turnout and response to the issues that were to be discussed by the panel. Typically, the moderator (myself, in this case) asks each panelist a few questions, then gives the audience its turn to ask away. While that format was followed on June 18, instead of asking questions, several of the 100 or so in attendance told of their own experience living with mental illness — or that of a close family member–- and the often debilitating toll it took because of stigma and isolation. The mood of the evening was serious, emotional, supportive and incredibly enlightening.

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At a desert reception after the panel, several people said in passing, or later called me at the paper, to urge the Light to keep this issue before readers. They explained how critical it is for us as a community to take an active role in making sure all Jews feel included and are properly nurtured. One fired-up group pledged to meet next month to figure out the “next steps” from an organizational perspective to help their adult children who are battling mental illness.

After working for months on this series, I feel energized that we have begun a great conversation and frustrated that we have only scratched the surface. Based on what I learned through numerous interviews as well as hours of research, I’d like to offer some thoughts and extraneous information that did not have find its way into previous stories, but are worth sharing.

First of all, the dedication and commitment among some local Jewish parents “to do right” by their children is unfaltering and something to admire. Again and again, mothers and fathers took it upon themselves to advocate for their special needs children or ones struggling with a mental illness, ensuring, the best they could, that their children got the attention they deserved. Some even started grassroots organizations when there wasn’t one in place. Jewish Attention to Mental Illness (JAMI), which meets the third Tuesday of every month at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, is a great example.

If nothing else resonates, family support is essential to living a productive life with mental illness. Countless studies bear witness to this fact. While most of the people with whom I spoke told of great family support, a few said they had gotten none and were ostracized by family members who wanted nothing to do with their issues. No doubt these situations are complicated and every story has two sides, but my heart still breaks for an older gentleman whose mental illness and substance abuse destroyed his relationship with his children and as a result, his grandchildren. He says he would give anything to know them, but sadly has made peace with the reality that he most likely never will.

There is also a flip side in this parent-child constellation of mental health advocacy, when an adult experiences mental illness later in life. Dr. George Grossberg, a geriatric psychiatrist, explains sometimes these illnesses are situational, depression associated with aging and feelings of isolation; other times they can be associated with genetic, biological, or neurological illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s; or in some cases, a combination of both. Grossberg explains that because many patients over age 65 “come from an era where there was a tremendous stigma to see a psychiatrist,” often it is the adult children who make the appointment. He says he spends a good deal of time getting his older patients to understand that seeing a psychiatrist “doesn’t mean they are crazy” but rather that they are experiencing brain problems and like any other disease, need medical help. 

By the way, depression affects 6.5 million adults over the age of 65, according to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation.

Finally, I want to extend my thanks to several people in the St. Louis Jewish community who spoke so candidly about their own struggles with mental illness. Thank you Ellen, Todd, Arlen, Sid, Jason, Jacob and Gordon for your courage in sharing your stories and allowing me to write with authenticity. I also want to thank Rabbi James Stone Goodman, who has been at the heart of this issue in the local Jewish community for many years. Keep fighting the good fight, Jim, and please know it is appreciated. You are the poster child for the spirit of tikkun olam.