May 26, 2016
Original Article Published on HuffingtonPost.com
It’s great to be part of a community. It can make you feel like you’re not alone, like you’re among people who get you and your life experience. In a community, such as the various Jewish communities, you have people to turn to, who will mobilize for you and share your joys and your challenges.
Except when you don’t.
When your challenge happens to be depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, addiction or another emotional challenge, things are different. Then the people around you have beliefs and attitudes that make it very hard for you to reach out and get help from your community. As a result, most of the time you pretend that everything is fine while you suffer, ashamed and isolated on the inside. What makes this so absurd is that, whether or not they know it, everyone has someone — probably a few people—in their life who suffers the same way. More people suffer from some form of mental illness every year than from the flu, and over your lifetime your chance of having some episode is around 50/50.
The stigma against mental illness is not a problem specific to the Jewish community, nor is there evidence that it is any more prevalent here than in other communities. We’ve made much progress over the years in addressing it. However, stigma is still a community issue that we can only address together. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time in which organizations and individuals who work or live with mental illness work to educate the rest of us about issues related to mental illness. We are also in the middle of Sefirat HaOmer, a time, between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot in which we try to correct in ourselves the failure of Rabbi Akiva’s students to treat each other with dignity. It seems like an appropriate time, then, to take a closer look at how the stigma against mental illness affects us and our fellow community members.
We don’t see other people’s mental illness the way we would see a cast on someone who’s been injured, but it’s just as real. Living with mental illness is hard at best, and sometimes it can be brutal. Mental illness can make you feel like someone drained all the color from the world and all the energy from your soul, like your limbs feel like lead and your brain is wading through impenetrable fog. It can make you feel like you’ve lost control because you’re constantly terrorized by worries that you know are irrational, but that just circle around you and get stronger when you try to chase them away. You might also have to deal with side effects, sometimes serious, from medications that you hate, but that you depend on to function. So many people who suffer from mental illness feel trapped, pathetic, overwhelmed or hopeless.