On May 5, mental health experts, rabbis, educators, law enforcement representatives and community members gathered at Yeshivat He’Atid to discuss the scope of stigmatizing mental illness and the impact it has on sufferers and their loved ones. Mental health disorders and addiction are difficult to handle and feeling stigmatized causes an increased level of stress and trauma.
Keynote speaker Dr. Norman Blumenthal, director of trauma at OHEL and educational director at Yeshiva University, believes a big part of the problem lies in the way the community thinks of mental illness. “We have to shift our thinking of mental illness from something that somebody brings upon themselves to something that is comparable to any other type of medical disease,” explained Blumenthal. In most cases of medical illness, there are both genetic predispositions which can cause disease and environmental factors which can contribute to the illness. According to Blumenthal, mental illness works the same way and the community needs to think of it as another category of medical disease.
Decades ago people rarely discussed medical issues they were facing. As society becomes more educated, people understand the value of awareness and support. Nowadays, diagnoses such as heart disease or cancer are often disclosed in an effort to gather necessary support and accessibility to treatment. Regretfully, mental illness has not advanced at quite the same pace.
Keynote Speaker Lisa Twerski, LCSW, and author of “I’m So Confused, Am I Being Abused,” thinks stigmatizing mental illness results from stereotypes. “Stereotyping is a major roadblock on the road to treating mental health disorders. Once we get past certain ideas like believing that mental illness and addiction is self inflicted and can therefore be easily reversed, we will be more open minded to disclosing an issue at hand and seeking the help that is necessary,” Twerski explained.
Too often people are afraid to get help out of fear that it will lead to a lifelong journey with no end in sight, said Twerski. Sometimes it is true that people will need help for the long run, but more often than not people do get better and benefit from treatment. “The fear is disproportionate to the reality,” Twerski added. Even as the mental health field evolves, people are scared of this stereotype and therefore disregard treatment as an option for help. In contrast to a medical injury which typically you correct and move on, the fear of an ongoing process with a mental health disorder discourages many who truly require intervention.
Hiding the reality of a mental health disorder makes it exponentially worse, said Blumenthal. Additionally, the stigma people feel creates a mindset of denial, pushing them further away from the help they so desperately need. According to Twerski, this is to the detriment of the patient, as mental illness, like many diseases, is easier to treat in its infancy rather than once it has progressed to an advanced stage.
Mental health and addiction is a universally complicated disease. The stigma associated with mental illness in the orthodox community however is something both Blumenthal and Twerski believe to some extent stems from the standards to which we measure ourselves. “The way the orthodox community has rebuilt itself after the Holocaust is really unprecedented. Our accomplishments and successes are remarkable,” said Blumenthal. Unfortunately, a consequence of such success is that the bar keeps getting higher and expectations are rising, he added. This creates a real hesitation among members of the community to come forward and deal with mental illness within themselves or a family member.
People are worried about trivial matters and therefore shy away from treatment. The fear of being less than perfect has distorted peoples vision about the importance of taking care of those who need help.. Blumenthal sees it a different way, explaining that in life there are no guarantees and people encounter challenges all the time. A person who manages to cope with such challenges often emerges as a stronger, more competent individual.
Dr. Blumenthal acknowledged Rabbi Penner, dean of RIETS, who has implemented extensive courses in pastoral psychology, counseling and awareness of mental illness for semicha students. This will hopefully procure a cadre of rabbis in the future who will be adept in the field of mental health.
Mental health issues greatly affect those closest to the sufferer, but because of the extreme confidentiality, there is very little support available for family members. Twerski noted how incredibly resourceful our community is when someone falls victim to a terminal disease. The outpouring of support on every level is immeasurable. “The families of people with mental illness or addiction often need the support, but maintaining the secrecy prohibits them from getting that,” she said.
When asked what we as a community could do to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction, Blumenthal suggested we focus on educating children about emotional vulnerability and the value of setbacks. He urged the audience as educators and parents to teach our children that we are human and it’s okay to feel sad and frustrated and to get help when needed.
Twerski suggested working to reduce the stereotyping that leads to the stigma. “How do we put a face on the nuance and the variables that lead to the extreme?” We need to identify the issue early on and address it before it gets to the point where people want to sweep it under the rug.
After the opening keynote address, participants were invited to attend any number of workshops on topics like depression, eating disorders, addiction and other critical subjects. The event was co-hosted by Communities Confronting Substance Abuse and Refa’enu, two local not-for-profit organizations focused on raising awareness and educating the community in the hopes that, through such efforts, mental disorder-related stigma may be eliminated. Over 150 people left this symposium more educated on these issues and that is an important first step in our destigmatizing mental illness.
For those who were unable to attend, a recording of the keynote will be available at www.time2talkaddiction.org.
By Andrea Nissel