Well, that’s out of the way.
About half the people who know me are aware of this fact. It probably doesn’t come as a shocker for the other half — it just never really came up in conversation. It’s not like I announce it to the world, just as someone with diabetes or cancer or MS wouldn’t announce their medical conditions, either. But, as I’ve been given the opportunity to reach a multitude of readers, I figured, hey, why not, let’s make some good of this.
But this isn’t about me. It’s about the rest of the roughly 9.5 percent of the U.S. population — including those in the Jewish community — who have been affected by a mood disorder — mostly depression, but bipolar disorder and variations of the two as well. It’s also about their loved ones, who want to help but who may not know how or where to seek treatment. It’s about a stigma that has no reason to exist and only exists because we aren’t talking. And it’s about the shame that so many people feel about disorders that cannot always be seen, that may be viewed as all in your head, but that are very, very real.
Let’s have an open and honest dialogue about the many people within our community who are struggling in the dark mainly because the stigma-induced shame, ignorance, and misinformation that exist within our community, and in the world at large, are inhibiting them from seeking the appropriate treatment and care that would allow them to better manage and understand these disorders and go on to build productive lives that extend beyond and despite their struggles with mental health.
A conversation, of course, involves more than one person, and as mentioned, I’m not the only Jew in town who has experienced the highs and/or lows of a mood disorder, and my family and friends aren’t the only ones around who want to know what they can do to help. So, I invite anyone reading this to join in the conversation, whether via the Jewish Standard or in other forums or by talking with the person sitting right next to you as you read this.
Speaking of which, the adult sitting right next to you has a roughly 6.7 percent chance of experiencing major depression in his or her lifetime, and a 2.6 percent chance of having bipolar disorder. If you’re the only one in the room, the same statistics apply to you. A child or adolescent sitting next to you has a 3.7 percent chance of having a mood disorder.
Statistics are helpful in that they illustrate the scope of a given illness — how prevalent it is, how color blind, how age- and gender-specific, and so on — but what’s more shocking than the numbers is that we aren’t talking about them.
Why don’t we talk about these things? What’s the embarrassment about? Why the shame? Are we so 19th century that we still view “the mentally ill” as “lunatics” who are thrown into insane asylums and forgotten about? Why do I need to use a vehicle such as this op-ed to come out to the world in order for people to wake up and start publicly addressing something that is in our communities and that will not be leaving our communities no matter how much we try to ignore the facts?
We use the term “disorder” but what of “disease”? Is it too brash to throw that word out there as it relates to depression and bipolar disorder? I mention disease because I wonder if people would be more inclined to talk about mood disorders if they understood them as real, concrete, actual diseases as opposed to disorders of the mind — that is, all in your head. Well then, evidence shows depression and bipolar disorder very clearly present physically, neurologically, and behaviorally. Neuroscientists have studied them using brain imaging technologies (fMRI, PET, SPECT), and specific brain regions have been linked to mental processes evident in certain mood disorders. In addition, mood disorders often present alongside other psychiatric disorders and conditions (such as anxiety, substance abuse); have been found to negatively affect the heart, blood vessels, and bones, and can adversely affect the course and outcome of common chronic conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity, to name a few. Socially, they cause great suffering — work and school productivity drop, relatives must stay home from work caring for their loved ones, lives are cut short by mood disorder-related suicide, and there are inter-episode effects where people aren’t fully back to themselves. Most recently, depression has been dubbed the second leading cause of disability worldwide, after back pain.
And yet we don’t talk about such things. We say “oh, he’s having a bad day” or “maybe it’s just a stage” or “she’s being overdramatic,” or maybe we don’t detect any inner struggle there at all. We either don’t see the reality, or we do but choose to sweep it under the rug.
What I’m saying here, if you catch my drift, is let’s talk about this. Let’s end the unnecessary stigma. Let’s pull these disorders or illnesses or diseases or whatever you want to call them out from under the rug. Because by keeping all these people under the rug, in hiding, afraid to come out, like I was once upon a time, what we’re really doing is stepping on them over and over again.
There are so many available ways to manage and treat these disorders — all sorts of medication, different types of therapy, certain medical procedures, exercise, diet, sleep regulation, light therapy, peer support groups, and various lifestyle changes, among others. If only we all knew this information so that we could make educated choices and take advantage of the many existing resources. If only I had known these things back at age 14, when I experienced my first depressive episode, rather than having suffered on and off through 10 more years with no diagnosis and then misdiagnosis. How much mental anguish could be eliminated if people were better informed and weren’t feeling so alone in their struggle?
What I propose: Let’s start talking about mood disorders in our schools, in our shuls, and with each other. Let’s learn the facts and reduce the stigma surrounding mood disorders and mental illness in general. Let’s learn about the numerous forms of help and how to get it. Let’s show each other continuous support.
There is so much that we can and should be doing. By staying silent, we are failing our community. Every single person reading this has the ability, and I would argue even the responsibility, to help others in need, whether on a small scale or a large one. If we’re still unclear on how to do so, then let’s talk about it, out loud, in broad daylight — not in hushed tones behind closed doors or after a completed suicide. Our family, friends, and neighbors (and in some cases ourselves) are suffering greatly, not only from struggling daily with disease (and yes, I’d argue that’s what they are), but also from the shame that our silence brings upon them. We need to start talking, and fast.
And if we don’t — well, then shame on us.