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When help is not forthcoming and the anxieties pile up

If we get used to talking compassionately and without judgement about our mental health, we'll be able to take our inner turmoil seriously, and before it escalates
Fraying rope. (iStock)
Fraying rope. (iStock)

These are challenging times and conversations about mental health are more prominent than ever. The emotional toll of COVID-19, let alone the devastating societal upheaval caused by the pernicious virus, is enormous. Everyone has been affected by it. The following is, for me, a vulnerable and deeply personal reflection on what has happened to my mind over this period. I would submit that in a world where COVID-19 talk is so ubiquitous, and where we all seek to find some semblance of clarity about it, it would be appropriate for all of us to become more comfortable talking about our mental health.

Over these past several months, I’ve experienced a fair amount of high anxiety due to myriad factors: the ensuing public health crisis, the amount of death and suffering, the devolution of political discourse, an agonizing lack of truth in public policy, the disregard for human dignity, rising bigotry, economic instability, the breakdown of in-person community, the challenges of non-profit work, the difficulties of parenting during a pandemic, the feeling the world is burning all around me, and my own spiritual inadequacies. All of these elements about the contemporary human condition have placed a heavy toll on me, as I’m sure they have on countless other people all over the world.

While I usually have a positive orientation toward therapy work as a healing process and as a means to develop self-awareness, I wanted to share with others why jumping too quickly into therapy requires caution; I speak from recent personal experiences. Whenever I begin to seek therapy, I generally check therapist reviews and get recommendations from people I trust. Nonetheless, earlier this year, I tried finding therapy multiple times, and I struck out on all those attempts. Here’s a snapshot of what happened:

  • One therapist preached to me about Jesus and started to proselytize me.
  • One therapist talked only about political views and personal family life.
  • One therapist, literally no matter what I said, responded with tired affirmative clichés.
  • One was judgmental and passed withering critiques on everything I shared.

Before starting on the path of therapy, it is important to know about boundaries in such a setting to protect emotional vulnerability. My experiences in graduate school and rabbinical school have given me the skills to detect quickly who acts unprofessional and who — potentially — even exploits or mistreats vulnerable patients. I fear most people would not know how to detect such manipulation of professional boundaries and would instead feel emotionally dependent upon a therapist for unquestioning support. Rather than deepen a sense of safety in an unsafe tumultuous world, some therapists can — whether unconsciously or unintentionally — trigger deep anxiety or other forms of suffering while mistakenly thinking that is what the patient needs to heal.

Now, I want to be careful to share that, after all of the challenges I’ve had as of late, I still believe therapy is a positive force for good. I believe every rabbi supporting others should be in therapy and this may be true for many others who are immersed in supporting others as well. I don’t want to suggest that my challenges are pervasive or common. I’m certain the vast majority of mental health professionals, many of whom are completely overworked at the moment, are compassionate, capable, and professional. I just want everyone to exercise caution.

The other reason that I write this essay is that I want to strengthen my internal moral resolve to keep going and to make myself accountable to keep going. I’m going to be honest; I detect despair within myself about my anxiety and my failed attempts to find the therapeutic support I seek. I almost feel it would have been better to not try at all, since I feel more anxious, given my failed outreach for a safe container to process feelings. I am blessed with a wonderful wife, family, friends, and deeply nourishing spiritual practices; I am not looking for additional friends or colleagues to reach out to offer support.

I will be fine.

I believe, however, that we should take our mental health and inner turmoil seriously before it has the potential to escalate. We should remove the stigmas and talk about it more. It is never too early to notice internal shifts that are worth processing. This is true for ourselves as well as for our loved ones (we should be especially alert and attentive to the mental health of children in our care). So, all I ask is you give me a bracha (blessing) to not give up and to invest in my mental health given my previous failed attempts to seek a therapist to address my most pressing mental challenges. I share this essay not for self-indulgence or pity, God forbid — everyone struggles — but, rather, so that we can all get used to talking collaboratively, compassionately, and non-judgmentally about our mental health so that we may all flourish together in a brighter, more accepting, world. This Rosh Hashanah, let’s pledge not only to challenge ourselves, but also to take care of ourselves; indeed, the two are deeply interdependent.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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