Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh—all Jews are responsible for one another. This is a principle we ideally strive to live by as Jews. We create communities, build shuls and schools, celebrate Shabbatot and chagim together, focus on our connections to family and other community members. We identify as a nation—one people—emphasizing our relationships with each other, doing acts of chesed and caring for one another. Loving and protecting our most vulnerable community members, helping those who are sick or in pain, and offering support are arguably the ideal paradigms of this Talmudic imperative.
During these difficult times, when we are all experiencing the uncertainty and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be even more vigilant about how this impacts those suffering from addiction or other mental health illnesses. Mental health experts say that the pandemic, which has taken lives and jobs and caused untold stress, has exacerbated mental health and substance abuse problems. It may be several months until we have a clearer picture as to how significant this impact is, but recent data on suicides, substance use overdoses and deaths, psychiatric hospital admissions and outpatient treatment for serious mental health issues have increased dramatically throughout the United States.
Research has established strong links between stagnating economies and increases in suicides, drug use and overdoses. In addition to tens of millions of Americans losing their jobs almost overnight, the pandemic has also introduced unprecedented disruptions to normal socializing and human interactions. When someone feels alone and hopeless, they are most vulnerable. As the pandemic has increased fear, uncertainty, anxiety and depression, it has also cut off the human connections and support that help those who struggle the most. Emerging evidence suggests that the continued isolation and the economic downturn are fueling the surge in suicides, substance use and abuse, and overdoses.
Before the pandemic hit, national efforts to stem the opioid crisis were starting to show progress. With the onset of COVID-19, many risk factors of addiction have intensified—isolation, economic distress, lack of routine to name a few. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a shortage of treatment resources as addiction centers and clinics are struggling to survive and many are closing. Access to services and availability have been limited. In addition, people who need help are choosing not to go into treatment because of social-distancing concerns and fears of contracting the coronavirus. So much of treatment is premised on direct human interaction, which is simply not possible right now.
As Jews, we have always valued community as the backbone to our existence. When in crisis, we all have a natural tendency to look out for ourselves and our nuclear families, but we must look at everyone in our community and klal Yisrael as our family and treat them accordingly. As the toll this pandemic has taken on all of us, particularly our most vulnerable, becomes more evident, we must fight our inclination to look inward and, in fact, make extra efforts to reach out and connect with others, offering support to those most in need. We may not be aware of who exactly is struggling—it could be a friend, a neighbor, someone you sit next to in shul (when we were sitting next to people in shul!), someone you simply wish a “good Shabbos” to as you pass them by—but these issues impact all of us regardless of our personal awareness of the particulars.
We need to go out of our way to be vigilant to the struggles of those around us, be it physical or emotional. Everyone struggles in some way and we need to ensure no one feels that they are alone. We must work even harder to maintain and emphasize the need for community and be responsible for each other. One critical way to demonstrate this communal support is to increase our own awareness of these issues and talk about them openly and honestly. The more we can eliminate stigma and allow people to come forward and share their struggles and ask for help, the more we literally save lives and fulfill the principle of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.
Join us on Sunday, October 18, from 9 to 11 a.m. as Communities Confronting Substance Abuse ( www.time2talkaddiction.org ) and Refa’enu ( www.refaenu.org ) host six different conversations about mental health and addiction. Listen in as people with personal firsthand experience, clinicians and other leaders share their unique perspectives on the topics of behavioral addictions, alcohol and Jewish ritual, ADHD medications and the link to SUDs (substance use disorders), mood disorders, substance addiction and recovery, and self-harm/suicide. For more information go to: https://www.time2talkaddiction.org/events. Pre-registration is available.
Lianne Forman, a 28+ year Teaneck resident, is the executive director of Communities Confronting Substance Abuse (CCSA), the organization she and her husband, Etiel, founded in 2018. Lianne, a corporate and employment lawyer by training, and Etiel have five children and two grandsons. Through their own family’s struggles, they founded CCSA, a charitable organization committed to community education, awareness, and prevention of substance abuse and addiction. See www.time2talkaddiction.org for more information.