Yosef Blau

The coalition is throwing mental health professionalism to the winds

UTJ's agreement to eliminate the standard of qualifications for therapists puts the psychological health of the country at risk. It must be stopped
UTJ chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf  arrives to the coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
UTJ chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf arrives to the coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Along with the major negotiations of the new Israeli government that have garnered a good deal of media attention, and even public protests, some elements of the agreements fly under the public’s radar. Likud and United Torah Jewry (UTJ), for example, have made a deal that is understood to be primarily about the government’s support of those Haredi schools that do not teach English and Math, as well as hotly debated deferments of yeshiva students from army service. The agreement includes other details, however, that have not received much notice, including the proposal to eliminate the requirement of qualifications for therapists, with implications that go beyond the Haredi world.

Actually, much of Haredi society is reluctant to go to psychologists, in part because acknowledging mental illness gives rise to stigma, and in part due to an underlying concern that psychological theory is anti-Torah. As the number of Haredi trained social workers and psychologists increases, these pervasive opinions have begun to shift as well, but the expectation of that formal training is not a given. Rather, self-proclaimed experts, without formal training or qualifications, declare themselves to be Torah therapists or givers of advice based on their Torah knowledge.

The UTJ political leadership reflects the hard line elements in the community that do not countenance “secular” training, and therefore have little reason to want a standard of qualification that is based in just that training. But in the event that the standards are eliminated, they will be eliminated across the board – legitimizing non-qualified therapists functioning throughout the entire country, not just Haredi society.

Such a proposal should be inconceivable to begin with, just as a comparable elimination of standards for those who treat physical ailments would not be tolerated. Unfortunately, mental health issues are still not understood to need the same high level of professional care.

To make matters much worse, this elimination of qualifications may put those who are among the most vulnerable in society at the most risk – that is, the proposed new reality would be particularly dangerous for the sufferers of sexual abuse. Professional therapists have been trained to report abuse to the authorities when they recognize it, and treating those with trauma requires specialized training. The self-proclaimed therapists are much more likely to be wary of the authorities, and possibly prioritize concerns about protecting the interests of the community, rather than the psychological health of the individual. Invariably, that consists of covering up abuse.

On the less dire plane, school psychologists help students with learning disabilities, attention problems, depression, and anxiety. Non-trained individuals treating students with these same issues may inadvertently inflict damage that is incalculable. And all of this without even broaching the mortal risks for children who are gay or lesbian in the event that conversion therapy, as expected, is allowed again as so-called treatment.

I suspect that Benjamin Netanyahu and his negotiators were so focused on getting agreements in place in order to form a government before the deadline that they did not fully think through the implications of this change. But it should be walked back – and it can be: there are no concrete proposals to implement the agreements yet, and if this change is not made after all, as it should not be, it would be extremely unlikely that UTJ would leave the coalition in protest.

Mental health is as important as physical health. Only properly trained and fully accredited professionals should be functioning as therapists. Those in the religious community who need treatment can find qualified religious professionals who understand that many may feel uncomfortable with seeking help outside the community. Moreover, some Haredi therapists trained within the community itself, as Adina Bar Shalom founded a Haredi women’s college to train Sephardic women as social workers, with the blessing of her father, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. Indeed, those trained therapists who know the Haredi world from within are often its most effective professionals. If UTJ is concerned about treatment from those rooted outside the Haredi world, they would do better to train more Haredi therapists professionally than to rescind the requirement for professional training.

A proposal that would permit those who are unqualified and untrained to use the title of “therapist” is dangerous to the mental health of all of Israeli society.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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