Raizel Direnfeld-O'Brien
Mental Health Education Specialist

What do you think of when I say ‘mental health’?

What do you think of when I say “mental health”?

I have noticed that when I say those two words in Israel, I get one of the following reactions. 

The social media is my therapy  “Wow, that is really important. I wish more people spoke about mental health. I follow a lot of influencers who talk about how to stay positive.”

The skeptical blow-off, – “So, you want more people on pills, sent away to the hospital or paying hundreds of shekels a week just to complain to someone? Please, look at me, I never went to therapy and I am fine!”

The always looking up instead of in, – “If you have emunah (faith) in Hashem, you won’t have anything to worry about. Just focus on your tefillot (prayers) and speak with your rabbi.”

While all of these characters are well meaning, they each showcase various misconceptions about mental health held by the vast majority of people in Israel. 

“Social media is my therapy” has misidentified what it means to be mentally healthy. 

To be mentally healthy is: to experience the full range of emotions, as appropriate to your current life circumstances, while having the understanding that as your life circumstances change so will your emotions. 

Many influencers on social media love to grab people’s attention with “good vibes only,” or carefully crafted “relatable” posts. They usually follow up with well intentioned advice based solely on their own experience, or curated to sell a product. They direct their followers to think positively or light good smelling candles around their apartment. While influencers can start much needed conversations about mental health topics, they also tend to create an environment which only allows certain types of “on brand” issues to be discussed. 

It is important to recognize and internalize that our goal is not to be happy, it is to be healthy! 

Let’s say that you applied for a job that you were really hoping to get. But, you received a rejection letter. It would be mentally healthy to feel disappointed in that moment. While letting yourself sit with that feeling, it would also be mentally healthy to have the perspective that your disappointment will fade as other opportunities come your way. 

The goal is not to be happy. The goal is to experience your emotions, validate your emotions, remember that your emotional states are temporary, and be ready for them to be constantly changing.  

I should take a moment to recognize the mental health specific social media accounts, like my own @mentalhealthedu.israel, who do their best to give quality mental health information. However, those creators often struggle with giving their audience quality content in the 15 second time frame allowed by today’s social media platforms.

The “skeptical blow-off” holds the stigma that mental health is not important and actively taking care of your mental health is a sign of weakness. 

Whether you give space to recognize it or not, if you have a brain, you have mental health. The more you take care of it, the healthier it will be. 

Let’s compare mental health to physical health for a moment. A person could live their whole life eating nothing but junk food and rarely working out, and their body will adapt to their normal. This person might not be able to even imagine how their body could function if they started eating healthier and adding fitness to their routine. They might not see adopting a physically healthy lifestyle as important. Figuring, since they have made it their whole life in a sedentary way there is no harm in continuing that lifestyle. This person could even very well live a long life this way. But, we can still appreciate that this person is not physically healthy. 

The same goes for your mental health. We can dismiss our personal needs for years and compartmentalize them away as we turn all of our focus outwardly. Concentrating on other people, on our schooling, or on our careers. Unfortunately many people are so used to ignoring their needs that giving those emotional needs proper attention can become a great source of fear. So instead, many people pass through their lives never purposefully tending to their mental health. It is sad, as a mental health professional, for me to see how many people deflect the importance of caring for their psychological health and neglect their needs. 

Mental health is just that, health! It never stops surprising me how many people hear the term “mental health” and immediately think of illness. Taking care of your mental health is not a weakness and does not mean you are “crazy.” 

Therapy and medication are only one aspect of mental health care. And while hospitalization is also a valid response to mental health needs, it is often last on the list considered for treatment options. Actively caring for your mental health takes daily energy and purpose – it is hardly a weak endeavor. Furthermore, assessing our emotional state and needs, communicating them to others, establishing and following through with boundaries, and allowing ourselves to sit with feelings that might be uncomfortable are skills which we need to nurture to be mentally healthy – applicable to everyone, regardless of if the person has received a diagnosis. 

The “always looking up instead of in” has forgotten that where there is emunah (faith) there is hishtadlut (obligated effort).

Imagine someone falls and breaks their arm. No rabbi would say to them, “if you have emunah your arm will heal.” Quite the opposite! It is one’s halachic (as stated by Torah law) duty to participate in their hishtadlut. That person should go to the hospital and get a cast for the arm, all the while having emunah that the arm will heal. Hashem gave us the ability to understand our mental health and nurture it, all while having emunah that Hashem doesn’t give us a challenge that we don’t have the ability to overcome.

Our hishtadlut for our mental health has three parts: 

First, we need to learn about our mental health from reputable sources. 

Next, we need to employ skills and strategies to care for our mental health. 

Lastly, we need to support others in their efforts to care for their mental health. We need to create communities which place value in mental health. Communities which allow mental health to be spoken about freely and without shame.  

Luckily for you, all three aspects of our collective hishtadlut will be discussed in my coming articles. 

As a mental health professional I will be writing reputable articles educating on mental health topics. You can look forward to articles with practical strategies and skills you can employ immediately after reading, which will allow you to better tend to your mental health. 

Together we will create a global Jewish community that rejects mental health stigmas and stereotypes. Together we will create a community that openly discusses mental health and supports all of us in nurturing that part of ourselves.

Together we will create a community who hears “mental health” and thinks: let’s learn and talk about it!

About the Author
Raizel Direnfeld-O’Brien, originally from Portland, Oregon, is a mental health education specialist. Raizel began her work in the mental health field as a suicide and crisis hotline operator and transitioned into the education field teaching social and emotional health to middle school, high school, and college students. She is passionate that education is one of the most powerful forms of mental health care! Through student focused interactive workshops and courses, on social media @mentalhealthedu.israel, and other educational outlets, Raizel aims to empower people with practical strategies and tools to take care of their mental health, both day-to-day and at challenging times in their lives.
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