Breaking the stigma around mental illness

Rabbi James Stone Goodman created Shalvah, an outreach on addictions, as a project of Congregation Neve Shalom. Neve Shalom also sponsors the Jewish Prison Outreach and JAMI StL, a compassionate approach to mental illness.

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

The week I am writing this, we launched another effort to break the stigma surrounding mental illness in St. Louis  (March 19 at the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis), the week after a well-circulated article appeared in The New York Times (“Table for Three,” Fashion and Style section, March 11).

We broke some ice here in St. Louis, and we are off to a good start, in a program sponsored by the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, with Rabbi Susan Talve and myself presiding. The program could not have happened at a time of more intersection of events and consciousness around mental illness, which affects some of our most vulnerable friends and family members.

One of the last bills President Barack Obama signed into law was the 21st Century Cures Act on Dec. 13. Two of its provisions addressed issues that we have been taking on in our “Break the Stigma” efforts: funds to fight the opioid epidemic with resources for treatment; and mental health policies that take on suicide prevention and serious mental illness, including substance misuse.

In contrast to that, the failed Republican American Health Care Act would have put into jeopardy efforts to cover mental heath care under the Affordable Care Act’s commitment to cover the same under Medicaid. It would have left such coverage to individual states and by 2020, states would have been able to drop mental health care coverage entirely from Medicaid benefits. 

On March 29, Tom Price, the Health and Human Services secretary, refused to confirm the ACA’s commitment to mandate substance misuse treatment, during a House Appropriations Committee hearing.

The March 11 Times article by Philip Galanes was in the form of a transcript of a conversation with actress Glenn Close and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., the youngest child of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. To all three, the subject of mental illness was not theoretical.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is the last great frontier in civil rights,” said Close, who spoke about her sister’s struggle living with bipolar disorder. Kennedy spoke of his own struggles with mental illness and his family’s with alcoholism, and about his response starting the Parity Registry to encourage individuals to tell their stories. 

”Free the stories” is one of our slogans. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem. Mental illness is not well understood, and it is not easy to talk about.

For those of us who do understand, we have to start telling people what it’s like, help other people understand, let everyone know so we can treat each other with kindness and gentleness and understanding and respect and without judgment. 

We have to do this together. It starts with telling the stories, which means breaking the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Rose Mass, of blessed memory, and myself took on drug misuse the same way beginning in 1981. It feels familiar to me now with mental illness.

At our session at the J, we proposed a kind of help mechanism, something we can pull off with the many people we know who are living with mental illness and have found a way to be in the world with all its attending struggles. This is something people can live with, and we want to give those who are living with mental illness an opportunity to return something to others who may be struggling.

Another slogan we use: “You matter to me.” We want to create a squad of people who will make themselves available to be contact people for those who are challenged by mental illness or are trying to find their way through the various systems that may or may not be in place to treat them. 

We want individuals who have been there to reach out to others, to help them navigate the helping waters, to make a phone call and to communicate confidence: You can do this, and this is what you do first, then this is what you do next.

Many of us need at some time in our lives someone to hold up a mirror to ourselves that reflects the message “You can do this,” a message from somebody you don’t have to wait for an appointment to see, someone who will respond immediately with a simple message of “I’ve been there, this is what you have to do, I did it and this is how.”

And those in our community who are in a more secure place now, if you’ve had the experience, we want you as a resource, we want your help to help others, we want to offer you the opportunity to return something of what you have been given.

Join us. We’re going to help some people.

Next meeting: 1-3 p.m. Sunday, April 30, at Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman Blvd. 

Help us break the stigma around mental illness – first steps, important steps.