Mental illness is not the ‘cooties’

Doctors often say that High Blood Pressure is the “silent killer.” Sadly, I think a new illness has claimed that moniker: Mental Illness.

Robin Williams hanged himself, then Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain committed suicide in the same week, proving that depression is not limited to the underprivileged and mental illness is as undiscriminating as the weather.

My brother committed suicide which makes me all too familiar with the unending wake of pain, hurt, questions and “what ifs” that survivors are left with after the irrevocable deed is done. Nothing good comes from taking your own life. Perhaps for the afflicted we can hope they are free from the burdens, struggles and challenges that are invisible to us, but inescapable for them. Still, suicide leaves more questions than answers, more pain then relief and more tears that do not diminish with time.

If anything positive can come from these deaths of well-known personalities, I pray it will shine a light on the serious nature of mental illness and how pervasive it is in our society.

As a congregational rabbi with a unique peephole into people’s families and lives, I can claim with certainty that almost every family has someone who is suffering from a mental health challenge. These illnesses do not discriminate between religion, color, sex or race, Depression is the most notable, but I have seen my share of paranoia, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and bi-polar disorder which are all rampant in communities like ours.  The difference between these illnesses, and say, cancer is that we still seem to whisper when someone is suffering from mental illness disorders and cover them up for fear of being “outed.” We are petrified that we will be stigmatized as crazy and only a step away from Nurse Ratchet overseeing our daily activities. With cancer though, we feel empathy in a different form and respond in a more hands-on manner.

A member of our community was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Our community jumped into action. Some volunteered to help with her kids’ carpools, another was deputized with shopping and household errands while a Google sign-up sheet was created to share who will keep her company during chemo treatments and who will organize meals and delivery of said meals for this family. As a rabbi, it made me proud to see our synagogue community respond without missing a beat. It was beautiful, empathetic, humane and the core of what we do as a place of worship and a people.

I wonder though, if said person were to say that she was suffering from depression and could not get out of bed, or OCD and was hoarding or perhaps unable to leave the house because she needed to have exactly 14 steps to get to the front door and she could not seem to get the cadence for that exact walk down, or if she were afraid to go out of the house for paralyzing fear, would we respond the same way? Are we still mouthing the names of these diseases and keeping a distance as if it were contagious?

We build walls around mental illnesses to keep ourselves away for fear of catching “it” or being near “it.”  That only makes the disease more acute for the afflicted and creates a vicious downward spiral for those working toward healing.

Judaism is not immune to suicide. Six biblical characters take their own lives. Some from despair, others from sadness. Whether it is Abimelech, Samson, Saul, Ahitophel or Zimri, we know that this epidemic is not new and it is high time for us as a Jewish community to address this topic. The rabbis all of denominations even stopped burying the victims of suicide in separate parts of the cemetery claiming that such a death is a result of an illness. Now, it is time to go further.

In order to bring more hope to the afflicted and to curb the prevalence of suicide, we need to adjust how our communities deal with mental illness. I suggest the following steps:

  • Don’t whisper about mental illness. The strides that were achieved by the LGBTQ community came as a result of people being bold enough to come out and share their identity and story. We have embraced breast cancer with pink ribbons, annual walks, and a month of pink end-zones in the NFL. So too, do we have to ‘come out’ about mental illness and embrace those who are stricken. Drawing near to those with health challenges and making Google spreadsheets for meals and carpools are no less important for the person suffering from depression as it is for the person receiving chemo. Sicknesses might present differently but, being ill takes us all off our game and we all can stand to benefit from help. That comes by being able to say in a full-throated manner that we are sick, battling a mental illness and need help, or that we are helping someone with a mental illness.
  • Mental illness needs a ribbon too. I am not sure what colors are available. Orange is for gun control, purple is sexual abuse awareness and yellow is for our soldiers and those MIA. Perhaps gray but, it really does not matter as much as being able to wear our awareness on our proverbial sleeve. Let’s talk about it more freely and create awareness and support.
  • Mental illness is not contagious and we need to stop treating it like the cooties. Do not be afraid to help those in need, get close to them and be the support they desperately require and will benefit from in this time of need. Equally important, do not wait to be asked to help. Be proactive. Sheryl Sandberg says the best support she received after the sudden death of her husband was someone asking her, “what do you NOT want on your hamburger?” Being present will not cure mental illness any more than carpools cure cancer. But, the presence and support matters.
  • Know the Numbers. We are not miracle workers or magicians. We cannot make the disease go away but, we can help. Sometimes, the illness needs more resources then a Google spreadsheet can offer. Know the numbers of suicide prevention hotlines. Keep the number of accredited psychiatrists near to be able to offer the support that is beyond our grade of expertise. Do not try and wear a cape or offer simple solutions and solve the problem.

I would do almost anything for another day with my brother. I cannot bring him back. However, I can do my part to ensure others do not have to suffer the pain I live with daily. This starts with recognizing the affliction and being supportive any way we can.

Try these small steps. Make your life and our world a place for all to feel it is worth living in. Together we can support those with a mental health affliction and bring more awareness to those in need. Let us act before it is too late.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.