Diane Weber Bederman

Embracing Mental Illness: The Last Frontier

Last year just before Passover, a young Canadian boy, Benjamin Elliott Zeligson (Ben), suddenly and unexpectedly took his life. It was April 6, 2014. He was 15 years old.

His mother said, “Ben was an academic who excelled in languages. Bilingual in French, he spent his weekends Skyping with a woman from China to learn Mandarin. For his most recent birthday, he bought himself Italian tapes to learn Italian, and I have no doubt he would have mastered that if he wanted to.”

He volunteered in the kindergarten, helped children with autism and at lunch and recess assisted other students.

What a beautiful boy. And yet he took his own life. In Canada suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16% among 25-44 year olds.

I looked for statistics on mental illness in Israel thinking the story would be much the same as in Canada where 20% of the population has a mental illness; adults and children. The statistics are much the same in the USA. But Israel is not like Canada or the USA or most Western countries because Israelis have had to deal with war and terror since her birth.

The results of a 14 year study “emphasize that Israel’s violent environment puts its teens at risk for mental health problems, the researchers say. The fallout from the accumulated trauma goes well beyond post-traumatic stress disorder and may include a wide range of disorders, psychological symptoms, and developmental impairment.”

As Andrew Tobin reported in his article last August “…the teens in the study were much more psychologically distressed than their American peers, who have been known to suffer angst themselves.”

Sadly the attitude toward mental illness has never been positive. We stigmatize the mentally ill more than any other group. Rarely do we see people embracing the mentally ill the way they embrace those with cancer.

It’s the work being done in Bnei Brak, though, that speaks to the attitude toward mental illness the world over and in my opinion is providing a road map to the destigmatizing of this illness.

For far too long, anyone in Bnei Brak suffering from mental illness would travel as far away as possible for treatment. They felt the need to hide their illness. The term used for a mental health illness is mahalat nefesh, literally, “sickness of the soul.” According to Nechami Samuel, a psychotherapist in the children’s unit at the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center (MHMC):

“The soul, in our community, is something very special – so to have something wrong with it is hard to accept,”

There is a hurtful stigma attached to mental illness here. Nechami Samuel noted, “It’s not like in secular society people are rushing to get into a marriage with someone with mental health problems,”

Things are changing for the better in this community. The stigma is being successfully addressed at the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Centre, established in 1990 by Dr.  Moshe Rothschild, now an 86-year-old father of 17, with more than 100 grandchildren.

MHMC’s Mental Health Clinic is the only facility of its kind in Israel employing a holistic, community approach to psychiatric family and child psychiatric care interventions. Patients from around the country access a range of out-patient services including treatments in the community, rehabilitation and integration back into society.”

Here the family is involved in the care and treatment of children.

“The staff at the Clinic believe that intervention for young clients must include the family unit. The Family-Centred Program for Children and Youth with Mental Illness ensures that the children and adolescents experience a smooth transition to normative family and community life. The program… helps improve parental authority and nurturing skills, and re-establishes the individual’s connections to community support systems. The program is currently developing a professional protocol covering a young patient’s “re-entry” back into society.”

Dr. Rothschild  lamented;

“A mental health patient who is not treated suffers a double blow. A lack of medication and rejection by his own family members. His silent cry fills the home with a great scream, yet nobody can hear.”

And that brings us full circle back to Canada and Ben.

Ben’s uncle, David Bernstein, described Ben’s silent cry: “There was a darkness that Ben was fighting, a terrible darkness. The darkness of the illness was so great that it prevented him from accepting the treatment that perhaps could have done something.”

“Ben didn’t want to end his life. He wanted to end his pain,” his father said.

Ben’s community came together this Passover to talk about mental illness. They were asked to place a red onion in the centre of their Passover seder plate. His family’s Rabbi Erin Polansky explained;

“I used the onion as a metaphor to symbolize mental illness and all of its layers. You peel one only to find another. And the layers go very deep. I also thought that the tears we cry when we peel an onion are symbolic of the pain of mental illness.”

We must work to end the pain from mental illness. We must make it easier for families and friends to help those who fight to live with mental illness. We must not lose any more of our children, our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters to this treatable illness.

Once again, it looks like Israel is in the forefront of this battle.

Am Yisrael Chai

About the Author
Diane Weber Bederman is a multi-faith, hospital trained chaplain who lives in Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto; She has a background in science and the humanities and writes about religion in the public square and mental illness on her blog: The Middle Ground:The Agora of the 21st Century. She is a regular contributor to Convivium: Faith in our Community. "
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