January 1, 2009
“No human is expendable. If one is slighted or excluded, the whole of society is unfit.”
— based on Vayikra Rabbah Emor 30:12
It is a sad fact of life that even as we have moved into the 21st century, we are still dealing with mental illness as a shameful malady. While there have been public awareness campaigns to destigmatize mental illness and a shift in the scientific community to understand the biochemical nature of psychiatric illnesses, the shame persists. Those with mental illnesses still tend to be viewed as flawed at times, as somehow not doing enough for themselves to get better. And worse, estimates are that two-thirds of people who need treatment don’t seek help. This is either because they don’t understand the symptoms or because the stigma associated with mental illness is so great that they are ashamed to seek treatment.
“Powerful and pervasive, stigma prevents people from acknowledging their own mental health problems, much less disclosing them to others.”
— U.S. Surgeon General, 1999
Stigma and shame go hand in hand. When people are excluded from their family, community, and society because of perceived differences, they tend to disengage themselves from these arenas. They isolate themselves and further become alienated and distanced from the very people and entities that can help them the most. Opportunities in education, housing, job training, and community life are lost. Thanks to many public figures, including Mary Jo Cody, who have shared their story with the public, the reality that mental illness cuts across all walks and socioeconomic strata of life is revealed, making it less shameful.
The statistic quoted is that one person out of every five families is affected by mental illness. So the Jewish community is in no way insulated from this phenomenon. Family members with mental and/or developmental disabilities have been at times kept under society’s radar from not being invited to participate in family events, by being shunned by some family members, or by having their disorder “kept under wraps.” Whole families create sham lives for disabled children living marginal lives or who might be homeless and wandering in distant cities.
Addiction is another facet of mental illness that has long been under-identified and/or
-acknowledged in the Jewish community. Whether it is alcohol, heroin, prescription drugs, gambling, or shopping, many families have been affected but have had difficulty seeking help. The underlying message is that we as the family helped create these problems; blame goes hand in hand with shame for many families and that has its own negative implications as well.
Perhaps it has been the overemphasis of achievement in the Jewish community that has set the bar so high. The stereotype is not so far off the mark. We value the mind and intellectual and creative pursuits. We also tend to value productivity, with its success measured quantitatively. Because of our history of persecution, we have had to reinvent ourselves constantly, so that sense of resilience and moving forward is ingrained. We are a people who have overcome many obstacles and survived by both our own means and by God’s intervention. Plowing ahead, utilizing and focusing on our strengths, has been a survival tactic.
As a Jewish community of mental health professionals, clergy, and laypeople, it is incumbent on all of us to change our perceptions of mental illness and to stop perpetuating the myths that come with these disorders. People with mental illnesses are not dangerous. This is a common misperception. While it is true that some people with mental illnesses do commit crimes, this is grossly exaggerated. In fact, the mentally ill are more likely to have crimes perpetrated against them. The predictors of crime tend to be youth, male gender, and history of violence or substance abuse. Mental illness falls well below these other predictors. And what we have found is that those with mental illnesses who are living in unstable, stressful environments and not receiving the appropriate care and services could be at an increased risk for explosive and/or violent behavior due to their vulnerability. This just validates the need for strong community support and services.
We as a Jewish community need to embrace differences and practice inclusion in all the various settings that bring us together. We need to stop judging others and to lovingly accept that we are all here to fulfill different life goals. We may look different and our life’s goals may be different, but put all together, we are all here to lift each other as a collective community. As parents, we need to teach and model for our children that we are all valuable in this world no matter what we look like or what others think about us. Teaching and modeling compassion is the most valuable lesson. As professionals, we need to fine-tune and update our understanding of mental illness and its impact on our clients. We also need to look honestly at our own prejudices and misconceptions about our clients. As family members, we need to accept all of our extended family members into our lives and to offer help to those struggling. As employers and landlords we need to make sure that we are extending opportunities to those who are most fragile and whose lives would be positively impacted if such opportunities were available.
JFS of MetroWest continues to provide counseling and case management services to children, adults, and families. JFS is steadfast in its commitment to provide services that are tailored to the individual’s need. We also work to help family members manage and create individualized care plans in various capacities for their loved ones.
“Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by another human being.”
— Elie Wiesel
Most importantly, as a community, we must embrace hope. Hope for recovery and rehabilitation. Hope that with great compassion and care, any obstacle can be overcome. There is no situation that is so dire that doesn’t eventually pass. And the grace and dignity that we can muster through these times makes all the difference in the world. Getting through a major depression, psychotic break, anxiety and/or panic episode, or any other psychiatric illness is no different. If one comes out with his dignity and personhood intact, we have done our job as a community and as a people.
Betty Jampel, LCSW, is coordinator of case management services at Jewish Family Service of MetroWest.
MetroWest ABLE — Access, Belonging, and Life Enrichment — is the newly branded network of agencies that serve people with a range of physical and mental disabilities and their families. The agencies include Daughters of Israel, Friendship Circle of the Rabbinical College of America, JCC MetroWest, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled, Jewish Vocational Service, JESPY House, Inc., Joint Chaplaincy Committee, and The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life. Consult the UJC website (www.ujcnj.org) for contact information and a directory of services, including counseling, housing, vocational, recreation, education, spiritual, cultural, and social services, or call community of inclusion coordinator Rebecca Wanatick at 973-929-3129.