The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn have negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance-use disorders. In a recent poll, nearly half (45%) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. As the pandemic wears on, it is likely the mental health burden will increase as measures taken to slow the spread of the virus, such as social distancing, business and school closures, and shelter-in-place orders, lead to greater isolation and potential financial distress.
In the Jewish community we have experienced a more palpable sense of disruption from our normal routine. We are no longer attending shul services. We no longer send our children to yeshiva. As of now it seems unlikely that summer camps will be open. The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America issued a letter the other day detailing the principles that should guide the decisions and planning of synagogues and communities when it comes to eventually reopening. They directed that the resumption of communal prayer and other communal activities should not be considered until at least two weeks after local governments have allowed public gatherings and not seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Some are thinking that this might even continue past the high holiday season in the fall. Although many of the synagogue’s activities have switched to Zoom video conferencing, people are missing the physical sense of community.
Furthermore, the effects of the pandemic have hit the Jewish community hard. Almost everyone personally knows of someone who has become ill or even died as a result of this epidemic. As the Torah alluded to in Shemot (12:30), “there was not a house where there was not one dead.” This virus seems to affect us in a more personal manner because we live in a more communal manner to begin with.
May is mental health awareness month. Even before the virus struck, so many people were, unfortunately, already suffering from mental health disorders. NAMI and the CDC tell us that approximately 1% of all adults have schizophrenia. Close to 3% of all adults have bipolar disorder. Nearly 7% of adults live with major depression. About 19% of adults live with anxiety disorders. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 10% of adults are abusing illicit drugs. In addition, approximately 7% of all adults have an alcohol-use disorder. Up to 40% of your neighbors may be taking an anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication. Twenty percent of the adult population will suffer a major depressive episode at some time in their lives. Under present circumstances, these conditions, as well as the incidence of domestic violence and child abuse, are expected to increase.
Mental health disorders are nothing new. The Torah cites many famous examples of our ancestors who suffered mental illness. King Saul suffered from bipolar disorder with manic episodes, raging against the future King David. Music was used to soothe and calm him. He tried, unsuccessfully, to commit suicide by falling on his sword.
King David pretended to be a madman when he fled from Saul. He feigned madness to escape Achish, the king of Gat. He ran around and banged on the doors of the city, letting saliva run down his beard. King Achish threw him out, letting him escape, asking his aides, “Why did you bring him to me? What were you thinking? Do we have a shortage of lunatics in this town? Let him go.”
The book of Daniel tells us that Nebuchadnezzar suffered from psychosis. He was banished from the company of people and ate grass like an ox. He sat around wet, let his hair grow, and he did not cut his nails. His psychotic episode lasted for seven years.
The Gemara in Bava Metzia (84a) tells us that Rabbi Yochanan went mad after he caused the death of Reish Lakish.
So, what are we to do, to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus on our mental health? Here are a few suggestions. First, establish a routine and schedule. Plan to do something productive every day. (Binge-watching television does not count.) Second, plan to get out and do some exercise every day. The sunshine also helps build up our immune system. Third, remember to eat healthy foods and maintain a regular sleep schedule. Avoid spending too much time watching or listening to the coronavirus news. One summary news show at the end of the day should be sufficient. Avoid isolation by maintaining social connections. Telephone, Zoom or speak to friends often. Visit neighbors in the neighborhood by knocking on their doors and speaking to them from a distance, using proper protective equipment.
We typically start our day by remembering all that we are grateful for on a daily basis. We start our morning “Shacharit” prayers by reciting 15 brachot (blessings). Some even aspire to make 100 blessings a day. This is based on the teaching of the Gemara (Brachot 60b) where the sages instructed us that as we experience the phenomena of each new day, we need to bless God for providing them. We need to appreciate each and every day that we can get up, have clothing on our backs, see and hear the world around us and be able to take in all that surrounds us. Some even keep a daily journal of all they are grateful for in their lives.
As we get through this health scare and hope for a speedy resolution to the virus, let us remember to stay grateful for all that we have. Let us do our best to maintain a positive attitude. Let us not forget to take care of our mental health needs during these trying times as well. Problems are typically temporary. Hashem’s oversight of our world is eternal. As Yaakov said in Bereishit (49:18), “We look forward to Your salvation, Hashem.” Let us hope that this salvation comes speedily and that there will be less suffering as time goes on.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]