Mental illness/mental health: Facing a community epidemic

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

My wife Susan Talve and I hold a meeting the first Sunday of every month called Shanda: there is none. We are referring to mental illness, and we are working to overcome the shanda-shame barrier that we believe is an obstacle to getting the right kind of help. We think it’s the next health care frontier.

We also think we’re experiencing an epidemic of problems associated with mental illness and mental health. I use that word purposefully: epidemic. And I don’t think it’s only because we are better at naming it, though the more we talk about it the better off we are. 

I received a call from a friend-colleague who confided that he had lost three young people from his community in the last year with problems associated with mental health. What’s going on? He asked me. I launched.

I don’t know all the reasons why, but I do know as a community we can respond better. I rolled out all my complaints about the weakness of what I perceive as our community’s response to what I called an epidemic. “You’re using the E word,” he said. It feels like an epidemic to me and that may be argued but whatever it is, it is serious. I think we ought to act seriously about it. That’s the first step.

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The next steps are more difficult. We have to make our agencies accountable. I mentioned the Jewish Family and Chlldren’s Service. We have to be creative, I said, it’s not enough to set out a shingle and expect people to come to us. We have to go into the community, get our hands dirty. These are mostly people who suffer quietly, we have to get to them. Then we have to do some imaginative programming. The parking lot of JF&CS should be full of cars every night I said, attending the kind of creative programming I imagine.

I mentioned the Kansas City Jewish Family Services, which in 2010 began “a frank conversation about mental illness, suicide and our community’s response to grief and loss.” The organization sent out a mailing initiating a mental health effort to every address of a Jewish person it could find in the greater Kansas City area to kick it off. We’ve done nothing like that here.

Sometimes all it takes is the conversation. That’s what we did with alcohol and chemical dependency over 35 years ago: we started talking about it. Out loud. Now we are doing the work of healing souls twice a week in meetings where lives are saved.

Wow, said my friend, you sound worked up. I am fired up, I said, I’ve been talking about this for a long time. Some people help, some don’t. I can tell you which is which if you like.

On Jan. 29, with the help of a grant from the Jewish Federation, the St. Louis Rabbinical Association task force on mental health-mental illness called for an expansion of caseworker support through the Jewish Family and Children’s Service. On June 15, the Jewish Federation Board approved full funding for such a project related to case management for those living with mental illness (Editor’s note: look for a related story on this initiative in an upcoming edition of the Jewish Light). We’re getting somewhere but it’s not enough.

What’s next? Our No Shanda meeting has an advocacy arm: to advocate at the state level, the local level, and our own community level for expanded mental health services. At our community level, we want to know the status of mental health as identified as one of the target issues of the St. Louis Jewish Federation’s Inclusion Initiative. Is there a director of a Disabilities Committee? There was at one time. What’s the committee doing? We assigned someone to find out.

I know other congregations have mental health efforts. What are they doing? We should be talking with each other so we assigned someone to pull together the congregational efforts into a coalition effort. We’re going to sponsor a community meeting and put our heads together. 

What about the Jewish Light? Can we secure a place in the paper for our messages? 

I think my community is not paying enough attention. I told this to my colleague-friend. I also mentioned I’m calling for a better response. It’s a matter of pikuach nefesh, we both agreed. Pikuach nefesh means it’s about saving lives.

“How is your addictions group doing?” he asked me. We meet twice a week, I told him, and hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t say: this meeting is saving my life. That’s the standard in my mind, I said, and that should be the community standard.

We are all in this together. That means we work harder, smarter, better. A couple of years ago I served as President of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. At our first meeting I presided over, I asked my colleagues: how many of you feel an increase of problems associated with mental illness and mental health in your community? 

Every hand went up. Every head wagged up and down. What are we going to do about it? More, better, smarter.