No more hushed voices when talking about mental health

Luciana Berger
Luciana Berger

We’ve come a long way in breaking down taboos and tackling stereotypes about mental illness. Young people in particular are far more likely to be able to speak openly about mental health and can describe different forms of mental illness. We have brave pioneers to thank for this cultural shift over the past 20 years, including outspoken celebrities such as Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry.

But for the Jewish community, like many close-knit and family-centred communities, the legacy of shame and stigma may remain when it comes to mental health.

There can be a tendency to keep mental health problems ‘in the family’ or ‘in the community’, thus failing to get the proper professional diagnosis and treatment.

A young Jewish mum may be reluctant to speak out about her post-natal depression because she feels she has failed to reach some imposed standard of motherhood. Too often at Jewish events people tell me in a hushed voice about their family member who is in an inpatient unit, or the treatment they are receiving.

They say they can tell me about it because of my public work on mental health, but they can’t share it with family and friends. For a community that has given the world so many leading mental health professionals, starting with the grandfather of psycho-analysis Sigmund Freud, we are too often reluctant to be open.

This must change. Yesterday we marked World Mental Health Day, which this year focuses on young people’s mental health. I used this day to spark discussions in the community about how to improve young people’s mental health. I hope Jewish News readers raised, and will raise, the issue in their communal organisations.

I know it isn’t easy. As well as the stigma, there is a real shortage of mental health services. Years of underfunding have created a crisis, especially in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). The Education Policy Institute reports this week that the number of referrals to specialist children’s mental health services has increased by 26 percent over five years. Yet one in four referrals is turned away, meaning that more than 55,000 young people are not getting the help they need.

The report says that the average wait for an assessment is 34 days, and 60 days to receive treatment. In most cases of mental illness, this means that young people’s
conditions become worse. The government has promised a future target of four weeks’ wait, but this goal is currently frequently being missed.

The risk of cultural insensitivity may deter some families from seeking help from the NHS. Some mental health workers lack basic awareness of issues such as when Shabbat starts, and other religious issues. At the very least, mental health professionals in areas with a significant Jewish population should receive some training in cultural differences to avoid unnecessary problems.

Some great work is going on. At some Jewish secondary schools, the students have access to therapists and counsellors, helping them to cope with stress and anxiety especially around exam time. The Jewish Association for Mental Illness (Jami) provides
a totally dedicated mental health service for the community.

It runs a popular café in Golders Green and encourages its customers to talk about mental health. This important voluntary association celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, and it is needed now more
than ever.

World Mental Health Day gives us all the platform to talk about mental health, and to demand the quality services we need. For the Jewish community in particular, it affords us the chance to tackle taboos, stigma and outdated attitudes. For the sake of our young people, let’s talk about mental health.

About the Author
Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Mental Health.
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