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Stuart Katz

My Beloved Israel: Why We Need to Hit “Ctrl-Alt-Delete” on Mental Health Care

Ah, Israel—my home, my heart, the land of milk, honey, and groundbreaking innovation. Seriously, folks, if patriotism were a sport, I’d be in the major leagues. I love this place down to its last grain of Dead Sea salt, the one tourists pack in their suitcases thinking they’ve discovered the secret to eternal youth. We’re the nation responsible for guiding you through the maze of LA traffic with Waze and the creators of Mobileye, so you don’t rear-end someone while you’re busy arguing about politics. We even revolutionized the humble cherry tomato. We took a fruit (or is it a vegetable? We can debate that next) and made it even better.

But listen up because here comes the zinger. As much as we’re a people who have mastered the art of startups and high-tech wizardry, we have a glaring blind spot. We’re more outdated than a Nokia 3310 regarding mental health care in a 5G world. Yep, you heard me right. In a nation where a new app is born every minute, our approach to mental health is stuck in the era of dial-up internet and floppy disks.

While growing up, I’ve heard countless stories about our ancestors, those resilient souls who faced hardships with nothing but the proverbial “Israeli spirit.” A spirit that says, ‘Don’t be a frier (sucker); life is tough. Deal with it!’ But let’s get real for a moment. The “Israeli spirit” may help you haggle at Shuk Hacarmel or navigate the chaos of a Tel Aviv train station. Still, it’s not exactly a treatment plan for depression or anxiety. If a little ‘chutzpah’ could cure mental health issues, therapists would be as irrelevant as a raincoat in the Negev desert.

And oh,  how we love to talk. We can argue for hours about politics, religion, or even the right way to make shakshuka. Should you add bell peppers? Is a dash of cumin the secret? But say the words “mental health,” and suddenly the room goes quieter than Yom Kippur on the Ayalon. It’s like admitting you hate hummus or Bamba—it’s just not done.

So, why is this issue so taboo? Why is our mental health care system lagging like a tourist trying to read a Hebrew menu? Let’s take an honest introspection,

The IDF Experience: My People’s Rite of Passage

Ah, the IDF—our proving ground, where teenagers turn into adults, often overnight. I’ve seen friends go through it;   It’s emotionally taxing, yet talking about your feelings often equates with weakness. Not cool, Israel, not cool.

Faith or Folly: Where Do We Draw the Line?

Ah, faith—the cornerstone of life in Israel. For many, turning to the Torah and leaders for solace is as routine as complaining about the heat and humidity. Yet, the approach to mental health within religious communities can sometimes feel like a script out of the Tanach.

Consider Iyyuv (Job), the Navi synonymous with suffering. Even though the guy lost everything from his riches to his health, some would say, “Look, Iyyuv kept his faith throughout; why can’t you?” But let’s get real—Iyyuv also had a direct line to G-d, and even then, he questioned his fate. So why is it frowned upon for us mere mortals to seek professional help?

Or take Shaul Hamlech, Israel’s first king, who had his bouts with what the Tanach diplomatically calls an “evil spirit.” Today, that ‘evil spirit’ would likely be diagnosed as a mental illness. But back then? He got King David to play the harp for him. While the harp tunes might have been divine, a little cognitive behavioral therapy wouldn’t have hurt. Or some meditation.

And let’s not forget Eliyahu Hanavi, who fled for his life after a significant win and prayed for death to take him. This could be read as a classic case of anxiety and major depressive disorder or perhaps suicidal ideation. If even our prophets, our leaders, could have low moments and express their emotional struggles, why is the modern believer expected to ‘pray it away’?

The Torah is filled with men and women, our historical leaders, who display a range of human emotions, from joy to despair, faith to doubt. If these giants of faith had their down days and questioned the universe, we should admit when we’re struggling and use professional guidance.

Systemic Issues

Funding: Show Me the Money!

Regarding making breakthroughs in tech, it seems like Israel is the “Promised Land” for venture capitalists (or at least has been). If you’ve got a new idea for an AI that can predict the next big fashion trend based on algorithms and Instagram likes, boom! Here’s a fantastic couple of million for your startup. But when discussing the dire need for mental health services, you’ve just asked people to donate to the “Save the Mosquitoes” foundation.

Seriously, how is it that the nation that came up with the marvel of drip irrigation—turning desert landscapes into orange groves—can’t “drip” some much-needed funds into bolstering our mental health services? We could funnel some of that start-up energy and creativity into devising innovative mental health solutions. But for now, our mental health sector seems to be operating on an emotional and financial shoestring budget.

The Missing Therapists

Look, we’re a nation of nearly 10 million souls. That’s 10 million people with their own sets of fears, dreams, traumas, and, yes, neuroses. You’d think finding a psychologist or a psychiatrist would be easier than spotting a falafel stand. But no, mental health professionals are as rare as a Tel Avivian who admits Jerusalem has better nightlife.

And don’t even get me started on the waiting lists! By the time you get an appointment, you’ve already had three existential crises, moved houses, and possibly even attempted to self-treat with an ill-advised ayahuasca ceremony led by your neighbor’s cousin, Moshe’s pet bird.

Overloaded, Much?

Our healthcare system might be public, but it’s also publicly known to be as overstretched as a pair of skinny jeans after Pesach. Sure, we’re global leaders when it comes to treating physical ailments. Our cardiac surgeons are wizards with scalpels, and our emergency rooms can handle everything from scorpion stings to missile strikes. But our mental healthcare? It’s like we’ve checked our emotional intelligence at the door.

Your average GP barely has time to listen to your physical complaints, let alone your mental ones. And the psychiatric wards? They are so understaffed it’s like asking one lifeguard to cover all the beaches on the Mediterranean coast during the summer.

Comparison with Other Nations

Israelis love to compete; it’s in our DNA. We’re on the global stage in science and technology, even in the Eurovision Song Contest (well, sometimes). But when the subject switches to mental health care, suddenly, we’re not just out of the spotlight; we’re not even in the same auditorium.

Our “frenemies” are leagues ahead of us in this regard. Countries we wouldn’t even play a friendly game of soccer against are beating us in mental health access and quality of care. So, what gives? It’s like being excellent in a decathlon but failing miserably at the high jump. Time to get our act together, Israel. No excuses!

Real-life Implications

Imagine waiting in line at your local bakery on a Friday afternoon—everyone’s hustling to get their challah and rugelach before Shabbat kicks in. Now, picture that line stretching around the block, down the highway, and to the Dead Sea. That’s what the waiting list feels like if you’re trying to get a mental health appointment. And let’s not sugarcoat it; the rugelach might be sweet, but the experience of waiting for proper mental health care is anything but.

This isn’t just conjecture. I’ve witnessed firsthand how my friends and family have wrestled with this system. It’s heartbreaking to see someone you care about, who finally musters the courage to seek help, hit a wall thicker than Jerusalem stone. Months go by, and they’re still left hanging like a chandelier in an abandoned mansion—beautiful but ignored.

I’ve seen friends and relatives who could break down a piece of Gemorah in minutes because they couldn’t access the needed care. A friend who fought in wars found himself battling internal demons he couldn’t name. They’re left disillusioned, like someone who just found out their favorite shawarma place has been using tofu all along.

Policy and Recommendations

Dear Israel, I adore you like a Savta loves feeding her grandchildren, but let’s get serious and implore changes now:

1. Money Talks

We need to divert some of our start-up billions into our mental health sector. Create a “Silicon Wadi” for mental health tech and solutions. You can’t tell me the brain that made Mobileye can’t innovate ways to make therapy more accessible and less stigmatized. And who knows, maybe we’ll create an app that’s the Waze for navigating emotional well-being.

2. Educate, Don’t Berate

It’s time for a national conversation that doesn’t involve shouting, finger-pointing, or blaming the other political side for our woes. We’ve turned arguing and protesting into a national sport; let’s channel some of that energy into constructive dialogue about mental health. Workshops, school programs, social media campaigns—the whole nine yards or, since we’re metric, the whole 8.2296 meters.

3. Train to Gain

We produce some of the world’s most elite cyber warriors; they can infiltrate a network faster than a Tel Avivian can grab a scooter. If we can train digital ninjas, we can undoubtedly train elite mental health professionals. Let’s offer scholarships, fast-track certifications, and whatever else it takes to flood the market with qualified people who can help.

Conclusion

Israel, you are my home, my beating heart, and the keepers of my soul (and my Thursday night cholunt runs). We’ve got a love story more epic than anything in Shir Hashirim, but sometimes love means sitting down and having “the talk.” No, not the birds and the bees—G-d knows we’re past that—but the difficult conversations that any long-term relationship needs to survive and thrive.

If we can win Eurovision with a clucking chicken sound—yes, Netta, I’m looking at you—and host world leaders with the kind of grace that makes seasoned diplomats envious, we can certainly tackle the mental health crisis. We’re a nation that turned a desert into a garden, for crying out loud! If we can make water flow in the Negev, we should be able to make mental health services flow from Metula to Eilat.

We’ve come so far in breaking down barriers, whether it’s in technology, agriculture, or social progress. But we’ve yet to dismantle mental health stigma, which is as deeply rooted as an olive tree in the Galilee. This isn’t just another item on a bureaucratic to-do list; it’s necessary. It’s as crucial as Iron Dome batteries and as fundamental as the letters of the Aleph-Bet.

So, let’s not just complain about it during Shabbat meals or at a shul kiddush. Let’s not wait until a celebrity or a high-ranking politician makes it their cause célèbre, and indeed, let’s not wait until we hear of another death by suicide and wonder what we could have done. This is OUR fight, yours and mine, and the battle is now.

Remember the old saying, “If you will it, it is no dream”? Well, the same goes for mental health care. We’ve got the chutzpah, the brains, and the spirit to revolutionize our approach to mental health just as we’ve done in so many other fields.

Israel, it’s time to add one more feather to our already impressive cap. Let’s make our mental health care as state-of-the-art as our missile defense systems, as inclusive as our society aspires to be,

For heaven’s sake, Israel, we can—and must—do better because a nation that doesn’t care for its people’s minds is —a missed opportunity for something truly remarkable.

About the Author
Stuart is a co-founder of the Nafshenu Alenu mental health educational initiative founded in 2022. He currently serves on the Board of Visitors of McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University Medical School. He serves as Chairman of the Board of OGEN – Advancement of Mental Health Awareness in Israel; chairman of Mental Health First Aid Israel and a partner in “Deconstructing Stigma” in Israel. He is on the Board of Directors of the Religious Conference Management Association. He has counseled over 7,000 individuals and families in crisis
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