Breaking the silence around mental health

For my sister’s 17th birthday, my family was all gathered, and the celebration had all the makings of a regular birthday — cake, songs, presents. However, we all held back our tears, put on a smile, and tried not to think of the circumstances as we celebrated in the hallways of a Jerusalem hospital’s psychiatric ward, where my sister had been for several weeks, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

My parents and six siblings then requested a family therapy session to discuss how to support my sister. The medical team told us how wonderfully odd it was to fulfill such a request. They didn’t usually have meetings with the entire family of a patient.

Growing up with a father who is a rabbi and a mother who is a therapist, every Shabbat meal was a processing session, so our request felt basic and natural. We needed tools to help my sister navigate her illness once she was released, know what signs to look for when she was in distress, and support her without being overbearing. Later, we understood that not all families are able to recognize that dealing with mental illness is a group effort and a lifetime journey.

If the stigma surrounding mental illness would be lifted, might we as a society be able to treat mental health like we do physical health? We expect those diagnosed with Crohn’s disease or diabetes to have setbacks. Similarly, those battling with mental illness have better and worse times as well. Is there a way for us to be more honest and open about mental health in a way that might actually provide better support to those struggling?

As the director of Ramah Israel Seminar, a six-week educational Israel trip for alumni of the Ramah Camps in North America, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can create safe spaces for both participants and staff members struggling with mental health issues. This is the time of year that we start reviewing applications, evaluating potential participants, and identifying individuals who may need special attention.

Unlike some programs that might be inclined to not accept or deal with those struggling with mental health issues, Ramah Seminar encourages both parents and participants to be open and honest about the issues at hand. We ask for mental health information in the same way that we request information about life-threatening allergies or physical limitations. The sharing of vital information enables us to properly do our jobs in supporting our participants. This helps us prepare and take preventative measures, instead of dealing with participants who may be in crisis.

Over the past several years, our camps have expanded the role of camper care professionals to include work year-round with families in order to best prepare our participants and staff members for successful, meaningful, safe, and inspiring summer experiences. The National Ramah Commission has created a role for Dr. Aviva Levine Jacobs, PsyD (Director of Camper Care Ramah CA), to serve as a Senior Camper Care Coordinator, bringing together a cohort of camper care professionals across the Ramah camps and Israel Seminar to address this topic in a thoughtful way, to break stigmas and to work more collaboratively to help support both campers and staff members.

This week we celebrate Tu B’Shevat. Our children will be walking around singing songs of trees, renewal, and growth. But what are we celebrating, in essence, on Tu B’Shevat? Why do we celebrate the blooming of trees in the dead of winter? Driving down the winding roads between Jerusalem and Kibbutz Tsuba you might get a glimpse of the shkediya, the almond tree that blooms exactly at this time of year. But most trees are left barren and naked. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to celebrate Tu B’Shevat in the spring when everything is in full bloom?

Rashi explains that at this point the ground has become saturated with the rains of the new year, causing the sap to start rising in the trees. We are celebrating the potential of growth, that which is hidden from the naked eye. To appreciate Tu B’Shevat you have to have faith, to believe that even in the darkest of times there is potential for growth and renewal.

This time of year, we have faith that once spring comes the trees will bloom and flower. In Deuteronomy 20:19-20 humans are compared to trees, “כי האדם עץ השדה”. May we always find new ways to support those in need — not to look away and ignore, but to see and nurture the potential for growth.

Tu B’Shevat Sameach!

About the Author
Na'ama Levitz Applbaum is currently serving as the Director of Ramah Israel Seminar. She received her ordination from Rabbi Daniel Landes in Jerusalem and has studied at various educational institutions on her path to becoming a Rabbi. She enjoys leading tefila and has served on the leadership team in different communities. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband Ari and their four children.
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