Mindfulness has become a passion of mine for several reasons. First, it comes from the recognition that working with mental health proactively rather than reactively benefits the patient and their families, as well as society.
Mindfulness is a unique form of mental health treatment that is able to confront mental illness by working at it proactively. It can provide people with new perspectives, strategies, skills and tools that they can utilize when the inevitable challenges come up in life. In contrast, other forms of mental health therapies work reactively, after their trauma or crisis occurred. Other mental health interventions, such as, medications, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and talk therapies happen following the event. All kinds of unexpected trauma, crises and challenges can arise, and we are somehow told to “deal with it.” Easier said than done! It is always more difficult to cope with (as well as treat) a situation after the crisis.
Mindfulness allows us to approach mental health from another direction. I remember in the 1950s and 60s, dentists realized that by educating children on proper preventative dental care and hygiene they could avoid problems that would routinely arise. Mindfulness approaches mental health in a similar manner. Rather than wait for you to encounter life’s inevitable problems and challenges, mindfulness trains your brain beforehand so that you can better absorb, respond, alter perspective, and make better choices when confronting life’s challenges.
The second reason for embracing mindfulness is that it can help reduce the stigma of mental illness. When mindfulness is routinely taught in schools, integrated into parenting and practiced routinely (like flossing and brushing your teeth), in time the stigma associated with mental illness can be lessened. People tend to feel more comfortable talking about medical issues, but mental health problems are still taboo for many. It may be because such issues involve emotions, psychology and matters that are not visible and easily viewed on a screen or in a blood test. Some patients have confided their reluctance to come forward because of feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy or guilt.
When mindfulness becomes a common part of our mental health training, we may lessen that stigma. Just as we teach our children at a young age how to properly care for their teeth so they can avoid cavities later in life, the same principle can apply in mental health. Providing mindfulness training to teachers and parents by introducing it into our educational programs could help normalize attitudes about mental-health care.
This past year has been extremely trying for so many people. Loss of life and income and disruption in educational programs have caused more people to seek out mental health support. A great service will be provided when the cloud is lifted and the stigma is no longer felt. Finally, the stigma can be reduced when we personally and humbly acknowledge that we are all broken and begin the process of self-repair.
As we learn from the bracha of borei nefashot, we all have chesronot, deficiencies and needs. If we can allow that to resonate, it may provide us with a renewed perspective so that we can act with greater sensitivity and compassion to ourselves and all beings.
Rabbi Sam Frankel, LCSW, has been a psychotherapist for over 40 years, and has taught at Yavneh Academy for over two decades. He has made numerous presentations on mindfulness and how it can impact your mental health and enhance your tefillah as well.