If you Google the words “stigma” and “faith-based community,” you come up with a number of articles, studies and other materials on how stigma within religious communities negatively and profoundly affects its members who suffer from mental health issues or addiction. In some cases, stigma causes the sufferer to feel isolated and to keep his or her struggles secret for fear of being judged. In other cases, where a sufferer would want to turn to their own faith and community for help or support, they do not do so because of the stigma associated with these issues. Interestingly, these issues appear to be experienced almost identically by all faith-based communities, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or other.
In an effort to address the issues created or exacerbated by community-based stigma, there will be a mental health and addiction symposium on May 5 at Yeshivat He’Atid in Teaneck, from 9-11:30 a.m. (refreshments served at 8:45 a.m.).
The idea that a person suffering from mental illness or addiction will be judged, deemed an aberration to the “norm” or misunderstood and rejected can end up making that person feel like a pariah in their own community. If a person feels alienated from their faith, distant from their community because of bias or fear, there is a greater chance that this will only compound a person’s struggles and create separation rather than connection to religion, resulting in people pulling away from their beliefs.
Stigma is probably the biggest barrier to seeking mental health care. So much of mental illness and addiction is misunderstood or mischaracterized, which can result in “social distancing” or isolating people with these issues. It does not matter what the source of the stigma is because the result is the same—the person feels isolated and rejected.
The stigma associated with mental illness or addiction can lead sufferers to internalize what they perceive is the way that others view them. Sufferers may separate themselves even more from their communities if they feel they cannot turn to them for understanding and support, and their attitude and ability to recover could be adversely impacted. Stigma can also lead a person to suppress and hide what they view as socially unacceptable in their community, which only results in a worsening of their struggles, and can stop them from seeking help.
This may be even more true when it comes to religious communities, including our own. Think about how our relationships with God and our fellow human beings are of paramount importance in our faith and religion. We are asked to examine those relationships on a daily basis—through tefillah, through our rituals, through brachot, through halacha—all of these come into play throughout our waking hours. If someone who is struggling with mental health issues mistakenly feels that they have fallen short of what God expects of them, what their religion demands or what is acceptable amongst their fellow community members, they may experience guilt and shame. If they feel that what they are experiencing is outside of their community’s ability to understand without labeling, and support without judging, they may separate themselves from their community, which can only lead to further isolation and a distancing from religion altogether.
Awareness and education are probably the two most important things to eliminate stigma and manage bias. Religion and faith can have a profound impact on one’s emotional well-being, and having a community to turn to for support and understanding could be of significant value and help.
Which is why it is incumbent upon all of us to not only be aware and understand what mental illness and addiction are, how they manifest themselves and what a sufferer endures, but also to eliminate stigma. By doing so, we can be supportive of those in need and accept them so that they don’t feel judged and stigmatized by our community, but remain a valuable part of who and what we are as observant Jews. If we, as a community, can embrace sufferers and ensure that they never feel isolated or rejected by our community, we can not only increase the odds of keeping them in the faith, but we can improve recovery outcomes as well.
The May 5 symposium will open with a keynote address delivered by Dr. Norman Blumenthal and Lisa Twerski, LCSW, on stigma, its impact on the community and ways to combat it. This is just one of many steps we should be taking together so that we can all fulfill the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha—love your neighbor as yourself.
The event is co-hosted by Communities Confronting Substance Abuse and Refa’enu. Among the sponsors are other community organizations focused on mental health and addiction issues including Englewood Health, Jewish Family Services, OHEL and Project Ometz. For more information, email [email protected] or go to www.time2talkaddiction.org.
By Lianne Forman
Lianne Forman, a 25+ year Teaneck resident, is of counsel to Moskowitz & Book, LLP, a New York-based employment and corporate law firm. Lianne and her husband, Etiel, are the proud parents of five children (and grandparents of one grandson), including their daughter, Elana, currently in recovery from addiction. Through their family’s struggles, they founded Communities Confronting Substance Abuse, a charitable organization committed to community education, awareness and prevention of substance abuse and addiction.