Sunday, May 16, 2021

(Courtesy of St. Mary’s General Hospital) As COVID-19 persists in our everyday lives, we are very machmir in complying with pandemic regulations—masks, social distancing, vaccinations. However, we are missing the big picture of another pandemic that is amongst us—serious mental health issues.

It wasn’t so long ago that people only spoke in whispers about cancer, even though it is one of the top health issues in our world. And while today we can speak freely about cancer and other diseases of the body, mental illness still carries with it a stigma and prejudice that prevents so many from seeking the help they need.

As Jews, we understand that physical and mental illness are equally deserving of healing. Yet in reality mental illness is off-limits. While Jews were instrumental in establishing the field of psychology, the frum community is not comfortable dealing with those who live with psychiatric conditions. Why? If a member of your family is diagnosed with a mental illness, it may affect your chances for shidduchim. In addition to the shadchan asking what color tablecloth is used on Shabbat, they may ask how many of your family members have a mental illness.

A shul rabbi in Passaic wrote anonymously about some of his members who were experiencing serious mental health issues. A 14-year-old was found unconscious on a street corner and spent 15 days in a psychiatric treatment center. Another former “A” student, socially engaged, who enjoyed going to school, had not left his bedroom in weeks. Then they discovered he was not in his room; there were vodka bottles under his bed; he had a serious alcohol problem; and was passed out at a party. Additionally, there were dozens of adults who confided that they are now on antidepressants and anxiety-relieving medication. Shhh. Don’t tell anybody!

Pandemic and Mental Health. And this is what is happening across the U.S. More than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses over the 12-month period that ended in September, according to preliminary data from the CDC1, eclipsing the toll from any year since the opioid epidemic began in the 1990s. The surge represents an increasingly urgent public health crisis, one that has drawn less attention and fewer resources while the nation has battled the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic unquestionably exacerbated the trend, which grew much worse last spring. The biggest jump in overdose deaths took place in April and May 2020, when fear and stress were rampant, job losses were multiplying, and the strictest lockdown measures were in effect.

Recently, a study also found that 18% of individuals (including people with and without a past psychiatric diagnosis) who received a COVID-19 diagnosis were later diagnosed with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or mood disorders. Older adults are also more vulnerable to severe illness from coronavirus and have experienced increased levels of anxiety and depression during the pandemic.2

In the frum community, considerable attention is being directed to the prevalence of obsessive-compulsive disorder3 (OCD), a condition that can sometimes be hard to distinguish from hyper-religious vigilance. Avigdor Bonchek, an Orthodox clinical psychologist, author of “Religious Compulsions and Fears: A Guide to Treatment4” describes the nature of religious compulsions and fears, and gives a comprehensive treatment guide that is eminently useful for sufferers, family members, rabbis, teachers and therapists.

Frum Jews are very reticent to speak about anxiety and depression. Even though in an article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry,5 the authors concluded that: 1. Psychiatric literature over the past 100 years suggests that Jews are at higher risk for affective disorders than numbers of other religious groups; 2. Jewish males had significantly higher rates of major depression than Catholics, Protestants and all non-Jews combined; 3. The results support the earlier reports that Jews have higher rates of depression.

To quote that Passaic rabbi: “… every day that we extend isolation to be extra machmir in pandemic regulations; we are being meikel in preventing suicide.”

Stigma against mental illness. The stigma against mental illness is not limited to Jews. Mental illness has been perceived as a sign of weakness or a defect of character. Research suggests that a majority of people hold negative attitudes toward the mentally ill and that, for many families, mental illness is a source of shame and embarrassment. That in turn leads people living with a mental illness to conceal their condition, making it less likely that they will seek treatment. The good news is that those who do seek help are getting better. Just like anyone else dealing with a serious illness or a chronic condition such as diabetes, those who receive proper treatment can have a “real” life complete with family, friends, satisfying careers and more.

St. Mary’s General Hospital provides excellent care for people with behavioral health issues, on both an outpatient and inpatient basis. Understanding the crisis we are facing in mental health, our team of specialists will be organizing an anonymous webinar on mental health in May, which is National Mental Health Month. Stay tuned. But if you or someone you love needs help immediately, don’t wait: Call the new Voluntary Psychiatric & Medical Care Unit today for expert assistance: 973-365-4422.

St. Mary’s General Hospital—nationally recognized, locally preferred—among the top hospitals in America for health, quality, and patient safety. A center of excellence for maternal-child, the hospital has over 550 physicians and 1,200 employees, with every staff member committed to providing respectful, personalized, high-quality care—to satisfy patients’ needs and exceed their expectations. St. Mary’s General is a proud member of Prime Healthcare, which has more Patient Safety Excellence Award recipients for five consecutive years (2016-2020) than any other health system in the country including a “Top 15 Healthcare System” by Truven Health Analytics. To learn more about how St. Mary’s General Hospital, visit https://www.smh-nj.com/ or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/StMarysGeneral.

For more information, please contact George Matyjewicz, PhD, community liaison, at [email protected]

1 https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm#data-tables.

2 “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use” https://bit.ly/3ebP7at

3 “Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in the ultra-orthodox community” https://bit.ly/3n1Hbga

4 https://www.eichlers.com/books/religious-compulsions-and-fears-a-guide-to-treatment.html. With a forward by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD, and rabbinic endorsements

5 “Vulnerability of Jews to affective disorders” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9210744/