No Longer Feeling Trapped — Breaking the Silence on Mental Illness

Last week, I went for sushi with a friend.

As we were eating, I became aware of the 75+ gallon fish tank that was a focal point of the dining room. What fascinated me about this tank was not only were there a few large gold fish swimming inside, but that the entire tank was dominated by one huge fish. It appeared that this fish was much too large for the tank. I observed the fish swish its tail once or twice, immediately arrive at the end of the tank and then maneuver to turn around and begin this process again — over and over and over.

Now, I’m no fish/fish-tank expert, but it seems to me that this fish needed a different size tank for its home. Its current tank was too small and it seemed to be trapped, constrained by the walls of this inappropriately sized tank. I actually felt sorry for this poor fish (I know…it doesn’t make sense: I was eating fish as I watched this).

Fish in Tank

There are times in our lives, when we too feel trapped or constrained by the circumstances of our lives. Sometimes, we might be suffering from mental health issues, sometimes from physical issues, sometimes from circumstances that we feel are beyond our control. We feel boxed in like this fish — we can’t seem to budge, we can’t make headway, we think we have nowhere to go.

We are often loathe to share our feelings because we don’t want to burden others, or we think we’re the only ones to experience this, or we think we should be able to “snap out of it” on our own, or we think there’s a stigma attached to these type of feelings.

Everyone around us seems so…happy, so content. Their world seems so much larger than ours. The rest of the world seems so wonderful and perfect. So why are we so miserable?

Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re feeling like this. It’s our friends, family and those around us who realize that something’s wrong. How do we approach a loved one when we are concerned for their well-being? How do we let someone “in” if they express concern for our health, whether it’s our physical health or mental health?

As a community, we need to begin talking about mental health issues and increasing mental health awareness.  Let’s keep in mind a few things about mental health issues:

  • About 1 in every 4 people in the US will experience some type of mental health issue during their lifetime.
  • Mental illness is real illness, the same as every other kind of illness. It is not “all in someone’s head”.
  • Mental illness comes in many different forms — just as other illnesses come in all forms. And there are many different types of treatments.
  • Just as more research is needed to discover new treatments for cancer treatment, the same is true for mental illnesses.
  • The more we talk about mental health issues, the more educated we become.

As a Jewish community, we too, need to become more pro-active about mental health education. We need to encourage conversations, outreach and advocacy about this issue.

We’ve had no problems addressing the issues of cancer, diabetes, ALS, weight-loss. Now it’s time to bring mental health issues out of the darkness and into the light. For too long, many people with mental health issues feel like they live under a cloud of anguish and despair. Their families and friends feel distraught and worried. To whom can they turn for solace, comfort, support, community, hope and healing?

As long as people have roamed the earth, illness has existed. Both physical illness and mental health illness. We see mental illness in the Hebrew Bible going all the way back to King Saul. David used to sooth Saul when he was exceedingly agitated by playing his harp. Where can we find what soothes us now, as we cope with our own struggles and those around us?

Every one of us knows someone affected by mental illness: it could be a loved one, a friend, a co-worker, an acquaintance or ourselves. And mental illness has many forms — just as physical illness does. It can be subtle or wildly out-of-control; it can be easily managed or difficult and painful. We need to understand what we can do so that everyone in our embrace feels nurtured and strengthened, so that everyone knows that they feel safe, so that everyone knows that they do not have to feel “trapped”.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim” — in the image of God. It is up to us to educate ourselves so that we can remove the stigma, and treat everyone with dignity, respect and honor in that “image of God” that each and every one of us so deserves. And so that those who are ill no longer feel they have to remain under the cloud of silence and secrecy about their suffering.

May we open our ears so that we hear the pain in the voice of those who are mentally ill. May we open our eyes so that we see what is going on in front of us and truly see the suffering in the eyes of another. May we open our hands to act on what we see and offer help to those in need. May we open our mouths to respond to the emotional pain in those who suffer, and may we offer healing words of love and comfort. (adapted from Rabbi James L. Simon)

If you feel burdened or trapped or feel that you need to talk to someone (or if you have a loved one in this situation) please know that you can always do the following:

  • call your physician
  • call your rabbi, priest, minister, clergy person
  • go straight to the emergency room if you feel that you might harm yourself or someone around you.

For some excellent Jewish resources on Mental Health issues, please click on the following links:

The Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center Mental Health Page

A book for families dealing with mental health issues: Caring for the Soul, R’fu’at Ha’nefesh

A terrific article on mental health issues and the Jewish community: From Darkness to Light: by Rabbi Marci N. Bellows (The Jewish Week. 4/20/12)

About the Author
Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel is the Rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, Long Island. Her career has extended from leading congregations to leading national organizations. She is passionate about Israel, social justice and enabling others to use Jewish living as a lens to living life with meaning and purpose. Rabbi Sobel is a fitness and food enthusiast. She views food as a catalyst for creating community and welcoming. (She is a secret “Iron-Chef Wanna-be”). She truly sees her table as a “mikdash m’at – a miniature alter”, a place where the holy and the ordinary come together. The daughter of a Reform rabbi (Rabbi Richard J. Sobel, z”l, from Glens Falls, NY), Rabbi Sobel was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, in May, 1989. She received her undergraduate degree in Mass Communications from Boston University’s School of Public Communications.
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