When the offer to write op-eds for the Jewish Standard fell into my lap like manna from heaven, the timing could not have been any more perfect.
It was early 2014, and I was in the beginning stages of starting Refa’enu, a nonprofit organization that, via community outreach, would educate the Jewish community about depression and bipolar disorder, and that would help support those affected by these mood disorders. I knew that if the goal of the organization was to educate and reduce stigma in order to help people, I sure needed to put my money where my mouth was. To go all in.
I decided that it was about time to use the personal experiences that I had encountered as someone living with mental illness. When I wrote that first op-ed, “I have bipolar disorder,” I was frustrated by the silence more than anything else, and here I was given a platform to harness that feeling in a positive, productive way.
“Let’s do this!” That’s what I was trying to say.
I wasn’t the first person to take a step in that direction, and I knew I wouldn’t be the last.
One of the first people I spoke with when I was forming Refa’enu was Rabbi Nati Helfgot of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, who wrote an article in Jewish Action in 2001 about his personal experiences with depression. From my perspective, Rabbi Helfgot is one of the pioneers in addressing mental health in the Jewish community. He certainly was an inspiration to me and my decision to come out, so to speak, about my own experiences. I’m positive that he has inspired others, as well. It’s about one voice calling out to another, and that to yet another, until in time a trail becomes a path becomes a road becomes an ever-widening road upon which more and more people may travel.
Currently, there are throngs of people in the local Jewish community who have been walking that road, speaking up and reaching out to the public with their own personal experiences and with projects and organizations focused on mental health.
The Mental Health and Addiction Symposium this past Sunday at Yeshivat He’atid in Teaneck, co-hosted by Communities Confronting Substance Abuse and Refa’enu, is one recent example of community efforts to educate about mental health and illness and in the process to help stamp out stigma. Lianne and Etiel Forman, who founded CCSA in 2018 in response to their daughter’s battle with addiction and their family’s struggles around her illness, are a welcome addition to the organizations and individuals who have been on a similar journey.
I try to draw knowledge and inspiration from all those who I’ve come across in the years leading up to Refa’enu’s formation until now. Here are some of them.
Elijah’s Journey, a nonprofit focused on suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community, was founded in 2009. Its founder, Efrem Epstein, also is one of the first people with whom I spoke when I was forming Refa’enu. I liked how Efrem and I were of the same mind, that awareness was an integral part of reducing stigma and giving people strength and encouragement to seek help. It has been encouraging to see how Elijah’s Journey has collaborated with other organizations in the mental health arena—Refa’enu included—with the belief that we are stronger together than we ever can be alone.
Or, as I frame it, we’re all traveling down the same road together.
One national organization, Active Minds, has made its way into some nearby Jewish schools. Active Minds is a national nonprofit that empowers students to advocate for mental health awareness and education for their fellow classmates. It was formed in 2003 and currently has more than 450 chapters nationally.
Yeshiva University’s Counseling Center has an Active Minds chapter that hosts an annual student-run “Stomp Out the Stigma” event. At their event in February of this year, students from the YU community spoke publicly about their experiences in dealing with psychological challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, suicidal thoughts, and eating disorders. Active Minds has chapters in high schools as well.
Similarly, Solomon Schechter Westchester High School held an Open Minds Summit this past November, where Refa’enu led a session about peer support.
Refuat Hanefesh, formed in 2016, is another nonprofit dedicated to decreasing stigma surrounding mental illness via conversation and education, while providing a safe place for those affected to seek support and advice. Among its resources is an online support room with threads on various topics and concerns. It also has live-streamed conversations with mental health professionals and lay people about mental health topics. Their next live stream, this Sunday evening, May 12, will be a talk with Matis Shulman, MD, titled “The Jewish Approach to Happiness & Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.”
Mental health education and destigmatization also comes in the form of film documentaries. Recently, there have been numerous local screenings of “Angst”—a documentary chronicling the effects of childhood anxiety—including at Yeshivat He’atid in Teaneck, Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
And in 2017, Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck hosted a screening of “Here One Day” by Kathy Leichter—an emotionally candid film about a woman (Ms. Leichter’s mother) coping with mental illness, her relationships with her family, and the ripple effects of her suicide on those she loved.
As each person speaks openly about his or her own experiences, the path to destigmatization grows ever wider and easier for the next person to follow.
One person who certainly has been a source of strength to others is Ruth Roth of Teaneck, who lost her son, Jonathan, to suicide almost seven years ago. Ruth has spoken openly about her experiences, both in print (Jewish Week, Kveller, Times of Israel) and in person — which, in turn, has helped many others feel comfortable in reaching out to her for peer support as well as practical information and resources. Ruth recently created “Jonathan’s Fellowship,” in which YU students who struggle with mood disorders speak to small groups of yeshiva high school students. Ruth co-led breakout sessions at both the Solomon Schechter summit last November and the Mental Health and Addiction Symposium on May 5. Her next stop is as a panelist this Tuesday evening, May 14, at an event at Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan, titled “Smash the Stigma: A Jewish Communal Conversation on Suicide and Depression.”
I cannot stress enough the power of peer support. There are many local peer support groups and programs for people affected by mental illness and substance abuse. It has been my experience as a peer support group participant as well as a trained facilitator that peer support groups are an invaluable resource for people who have a mental health disorder as well as for their family members.
CCSA recently started a group for family members of loved ones suffering from addiction or struggling with substance abuse. The group meets regularly every other Wednesday and is facilitated by professionals who specialize in addiction.
Project Ometz, founded in 2017 as a project of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, offers peer-to-peer support with “parent mentor volunteers” who share their knowledge, based on personal experience raising a child with mental illness. Recently, Project Ometz has partnered with Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey and is providing support groups for parents of children with mental health challenges.
Chazak Together is a recently formed grassroots group, led by Ellie Rothstein of Teaneck, that is for parents of children who have emotional and behavioral issues.
Chazkeinu, formed in 2016, is a peer support organization for Jewish women with mental health challenges. (I wrote about Chazkeinu in these pages in August 2016, soon after it had formed.) Its main project is a phone group that “meets” twice a week, on Mondays at 9 p.m. EST and — catering to international callers — on Wednesdays at 1 p.m. EST. Guest speakers are either women sharing their personal experiences with mental health, degreed mental health professionals, or rabbis; each talks for about 20 minutes, and an open, moderated Q&A with dialed-in participants follows.
“Strength to Strength” (S2S), at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly, is a professionally led support group that was initiated in 2012 by Jeffrey Berman, MD, FASAM, in collaboration with members of the Bergen County Jewish community. The support group, which Dr. Berman facilitates, serves parents of young adults who have substance use and mental health disorders.
I have come across other mental health resources that cater to the Jewish community. Among them is Shalvah, an Orthodox Jewish track within SOBA College Recovery’s substance abuse program. Shalvah, based in New Brunswick, offers Jewish addicts treatment without compromising their Jewish values and halachot.
Finally, the last organization that I will mention here (though there certainly are many more) is Relief Resources, a nonprofit founded in 2001 that offers referrals to mental health resources based on each individual’s needs and challenges.
And then I go back to Refa’enu. What I have witnessed with Refa’enu’s peer-led support groups—which meet the first and third Tuesdays of the month in Paramus—as well as with the Mood Disorders Support Group of New York, where I received my facilitator training, is that the peer support group model works. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s a forum for one person to support another, without any judgment or shame. It’s a place where a person can feel heard, noticed, and understood.
People have come to me asking if there are any peer-led mood disorder support groups of the same kind where they live, groups that cater to the Jewish community. And I feel frustrated because I don’t know in which way to steer them.
But now, recently, having seen how this road to mental wellness works, I’ve decided to keep with this image of an ever-widening road. So that when the next person asks me if I know of a support group in their area like the ones Refa’enu provides, instead of shaking my head and lamenting that I don’t know of any, I’m going to look at them enthusiastically, veer off in a new direction, and say: “Hey! Let’s create one!”
How fortunate I am to be involved in this movement, one footstep among many who are, collectively, paving the way towards mental wellness. With each new traveler, our confidence to march on only grows.