Mental health is a Jewish issue

By Hillel Abramson, Ph.D

I was pleased to learn that part of the current installment of Can We Talk? is centered on the mental health needs of our Jewish community and how we can best address them.  As a psychologist in private practice, I sense a professional calling and feel privileged to serve our community in both assessing and meeting some of these needs. 

The truth is that as members of this community, we all have a personal responsibility to be cognizant of, and do what we can, to promote the awareness and servicing of these needs.  In fact every shabbos and yom tov during the misheberach (blessing for the sick) that accompanies the Torah reading, we underscore the importance of addressing mental health by placing our request for refuas hanefesh — healing of the spirit, before our appeal for refuas haguf — healing of the body.

Furthermore, from a religious standpoint, we are obligated to observe and address the mental health needs of our Jewish brothers and sisters as the Torah and the Talmud exhort. Specific laws were designed to assure that we are sensitive to, and address the plight of the broken spirited, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed and the converted.  Our sages are, in fact, concerned enough about one’s mental state that they even suggest remedies.  For example, well before horticultural therapy and cognitive behavior therapy activation programs were developed, sages of the Talmud suggested that if one is feeling depressed, one should plant something and participate in its growth.  Moreover, one of our basic tenets in serving our Creator is Ivdu es Hashem bisimcha, meaning serve G-d from joy.  How can one achieve joy when one is so overwhelmed with anxiety and depression —  in the best-case scenario, one might assume he or she is angry with Hashem; in the worst case, one could conclude that if such pain can exist there must be no G-d?

One may argue that perhaps mental health in the Jewish community is important but not a priority.  After all, how prevalent are mental health issues in our community anyway?

The answer is that dating as far back as the late 1800s, study after study shows depression, anxiety and a whole host of other psychiatric conditions are at least equally prevalent among our people as in the general population —mental health difficulties apparently are an equal opportunity employer.  Each and every one of us must do our part to address the resulting need, but how?

I propose that mental health professionals and Jewish mental health service organizations institute a series of community forums and meetings and/or in-services with rabbis and community organizations to educate them on everything from identifying the mentally ill to helping them access comprehensive therapeutic services to caring for them with dignity. 

For those of you who are not trained but fortunate enough during these difficult economic times to have the resources, I encourage you to earmark your money to Jewish organizations that provide mental health services; due to limited funds, often there are not enough staff to meet the need.  In addition, money should be set aside to pay for those who need specialized treatments that can only be provided by individual practitioners in the community.

Also critical is more public education aimed at demystifying the stigma of mental illness so that our community can be more welcoming and inclusive of those who are affected. How one is treated and his/her sense of belonging have a significant impact on well-being and a desire to continue living.

As the great sage Shamai exhorted: “Vihavei mikabel es kol haadam bisever panim yafos,” one must greet everyone with a pleasant countenance.  We must also provide for housing, jobs and other basic living needs as a lack of these can affect and exacerbate mental health difficulties. 

By taking these measures, we can truly live up to our G-d given responsibility to take care of our Jewish brothers and sisters who suffer the loneliness, anguish and personal and financial consequences of compromised mental health.