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Stigma (RH1 5779)

Stigma of Mental Illness/Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5779/2018
Rabbi Randall Mark, Shomrei Torah, Wayne, NJ

The Torah reading we do every year on Rosh Hashanah is not about the creation of the world which Rosh Hashanah celebrates, nor about the beginning of us a people which we celebrate at Pesach. Rather on Rosh Hashanah the rabbis prescribed that we read about the first family of the Jewish people – about Abraham and his family.  In case you missed it when we did the Torah reading, we learned that Sarah has given birth to Isaac and become hostile to Hagar and her son Ishmael. She tells Abraham to cast them out lest they threaten her beloved son and his inheritance.  Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac – are a dysfunctional blended family.  Today families have all sorts of configurations and can include very diverse people; the challenge is making them work. We can look at this first family and its flaws as a teachable moment.  

Sarah’s fear can be understood, but her actions cannot be condoned. Some argue that there is more to the story than presented in the text, that Ishmael is a threat to Isaac’s safety and so they have to go. Abraham to his credit is troubled by Sarah’s insistence that Hagar and Ishmael, his first born son, be evicted from the family and exiled; which he ultimately agrees to do with God’s consent.  Hagar’s response to being evicted is despair, she gives up and she leaves her son to die. In the haftarah we read about Hannah, who struggles with infertility. She cries and prays and is mistaken as a drunkard by Eli, the priest, who chastises her. She explains herself and he blesses her and she conceives.

Life can be difficult; it can be overwhelming at times. It is very useful to have a good therapist on speed dial for the times when life is just too much for us and we need some help to cope.  It can happen to anyone; sometimes it is a response to circumstances as is the case with Hagar and Hannah.  Today we know well that sometimes issues are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that we can’t control and we can’t overcome on our own.

Overwhelming stress and mental illness are a part of life. Mental illness is the same as any other type of illness. It comes into most lives at some time or other. However, when we break our leg or are exposed to a virus, we are viewed as a victim in need of support and healing; mental illness is treated differently.  In our society, mental illness is often viewed as a weakness rather than an illness.  Sometimes be the person suffering from the illness themselves.

Last February I attended a clergy workshop at Chilton Medical Center on the stigma of mental illness. The headline was, “No More Whispers.” They shared: Let’s end the whispering about mental illness and addiction. There is no shame. You can’t catch it, and like the majority of other diseases, no one asks for it.  It affects all ages, ethnicities, income levels and genders. We all know someone. Don’t fear it. Don’t judge it. Understand it.

The statistics surrounding mental illness are terrible – one in four or five (depending upon the study you read, but either is bad) experience mental illness, the number who know someone suffering from mental illness is even larger and yet only one third seek treatment.  The negative stereotypes that surround mental illness often deter people from seeking the help they need. Sharing that one suffers from mental illness can result in social distancing, as others give you a wide berth as if it were contagious, which leads to social isolation that only exacerbates the situation. As children we might refer to someone as “crazy” and then avoid them, but we try to teach our children that is not an appropriate appellation for anyone.  The media often portrays perpetrators of violence as being mentally ill, fueling that connection that makes people wary of people with mental illness as dangerous. It is a bias not supported by facts.  Most people with mental illness are no more dangerous to you than someone with a broken leg.

Sometimes we believe these same stigmas and so internalize that if we are suffering from mental illness that it is something that we deserve and we can undermine our own recovery.  Embarrassment is a leading cause of people not seeking help and also for not regularly taking medication.  No one is embarrassed taking cholesterol medication or radiation for cancer, but somehow taking meds to help with mental illness is a sign of weakness, it is something we think we should be able to overcome on our own; nothing could be further from the truth.  In today’s litigation oriented society we often criminalized mental illness. In Psychology Today I found an article which stated that, “People with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be in prison than in psychiatric facilities”.  

So what can we do? Increased awareness for one thing; we need to understand that mental illness is illness nothing more, that people suffering from it need help and support the same as any other ill person.  Have you ever noticed that for physical ailments you have them – I have high blood pressure, I have diabetes, I have cancer; but mental illness or addictions is ontological, it is who you are – I am mentally ill, I am an addict.  We need to change this type of thinking. One has mental illness, one suffers from addiction; they affect you, they do not define you.

At this workshop I learned about NAMI – the National Alliance on Mental Illness – they look for ways to fight against the stigma of mental illness which just adds unnecessary pain to people who are already suffering. They teach ways that we fight against stigma – Talk openly about mental health, educate yourself and others, be conscious of how you use language, encourage equality between physical and mental illness, show compassion for those with mental illness, choose empowerment over shame, be honest about treatment – if you can say that you are going to the doctor for your annual physical, why not say that you are going to see your therapist, both are there to help you; let the media know when they are being stigmatizing, don’t harbor self-stigma, it is easy to let the voice in our own heads give us bad messages.  

I also learned about Stigma Free Zones. People suffering from mental illness are often discriminated against for jobs and housing, so in our area it started in Paramus, a movement to fight against these stigmas, the town of Paramus set up a task force and became a stigma free zone back in 2013.  Wayne Township became a Stigma Free Zone last November.  Language is important, don’t say that someone is bipolar; rather that someone is living with bipolar disorder. I later learned that individuals can NAMI’s StigmaFree Pledge which I have done. It reads, “The StigmaFree campaign is NAMI’s effort to end stigma and create hope for those affected by mental illness. Through powerful words and actions, we can shift the social and systematic barriers for those living with mental health conditions. Together, we can encourage acceptance and understanding. Together, we can advocate for a better world. Together, we can turn StigmaFree Me into StigmaFree We. As the movement has begun to grow, it has spread to universities, companies and now even houses of worship, so we here at Shomrei Torah can become a Stigma Free Zone.

Like most diseases with treatment recovery is possible and a normal life can be lived, but when the stigma of mental illness keeps people from getting the help they need and social isolation increases, then it can lead to death by suicide.  As Jews we value life and so anything we can do preserve life, we are obligated to do.  While Judaism prohibits suicide, it considers one who dies by suicide as one who cannot be held accountable for their actions and free of sin.  Judaism understands that it is a sickness.

One of the most recognizable prayers we will recite today is the Avinu Malkeinu.  It implores God as our father and sovereign to show us mercy, forgive us our transgressions and to bestow blessing upon us in the New Year that now begins. We recite it in the plural, recognizing that we are not alone; we are a part of a community.  Before Kol Nidre we state that we are prepared to pray with those who transgress; all the more so, we should be sure not to shame, embarrass or distance ourselves from those who suffer from mental illness. We must be sure to see the person, not the condition; and we must offer our support to them in their hour of need because that is what family does and we are all part of the same family; that is what friends do and we are friends with one another; that is what communities do to support their members and we are a community.  

Let us all work together to do our part to end the stigma of mental illness. Let’s make sure that Shomrei Torah is a safe place for people to share whatever it is that ails them. And please know that I am ready, willing and able to be a resource for anyone suffering from addiction or mental illness. You are not alone!

May this be a year of health – mental health, physical health and even spiritual health for all of us. Shanah Tovah, May it be a Good New Year.


Wed, September 22 2021 16 Tishrei 5782