Mental health event in Marin slated for Sunday, Nov. 5

"We would like to encourage synagogue's bikkur cholim [visiting the sick] committees to consider mental illness as important to respond to as any other illness. We want to encourage them to consider the needs of family members who care for someone with mental illness, as much as they would consider the needs of a caregiver of someone who has cancer."

Judy Schwartz, Marin branch director of Jewish Family and Children's Services, said: "The fact is, JFCS does a lot for people who are mentally ill. But there's a way we can help to play a role in making the subject more acceptable, and in making families who struggle with this more welcome in the Jewish community."

After the conference, she said, "We hope to establish networks for people, and ways for people to get in touch with each other and get support from each other. If we can begin that process and begin to bring down the stigma walls, then I'll feel that we've really succeeded."

Alex Markels, a clinical social worker with JFCS in Marin, pointed out that people with mental illness want to work and have relationships just like everyone else, and that "some of the symptoms are caused by the stigma itself."

While mental illness cannot usually be cured, it can be controlled with the right medication and therapy. In fact, the treatment success rate for major disorders such as severe depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is higher than that for heart disease, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

"The mythology about mental illness, and the ability to have meaningful work and relationships, somehow has been irreversibly sabotaged," Markels said. "In the same way that when you have someone in a wheelchair, you make the desk a little different, you make those same accommodations."

"Bringing Down the Stigma Walls" is co-sponsored by JFCS, Bay Area Jewish Healing Center (a program of Mount Zion Health Fund), Marin Jewish Community Center, and Congregations Kol Shofar of Tiburon and Rodef Sholom. It is being funded, in part, by the Newhouse Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment and the Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

— Alexandra J. Wall