Rabbis and therapists tackle social stigma of mental illness

"Mental illness is not, in the Jewish tradition, an indication of sinfulness, of degeneracy or a punishment from God," said Rabbi Lavey Derby. "It is illness."

Denial remains rampant, he said, speaking at "Bringing Down the Stigma Walls," a conference on mental illness and the Jewish community held earlier this month at San Rafael's Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom. About 150 people attended.

"Perhaps mental illness hits Jews where we pride ourselves the most — the intellect," said Derby, who is spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. "Or perhaps we still can't face the fact that Jews aren't special or different from any other people."

The Jewish community's emphasis on education and professional career choices that emphasize brains over brawn may make it more difficult for Jews who suffer from mental illness to seek help, said speakers at the conference.

The event featured a panel discussion, a healing service led by Rabbi Aliza Berk of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and songs by Cantor Rita Glassman of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom.

Rabbi Michael Barenbaum, who has been with Rodef Sholom for 24 years, said that it took him a long time to recognize that mental illness is "beyond an issue of will." Over the years, he said, his synagogue has become a welcoming environment, and he regards it as his duty to seek out congregants who are marginalized.

Ironically, traditional Judaism takes a relatively enlightened stance on mental illness, according to Derby. For example, lighting a candle on the Sabbath, which generally is strictly forbidden except to save a life, is permissible in order to spare someone psychic anguish.

Alex Markels, a Jewish Family and Children's Services social worker who treats both mental illness and substance abuse, said he had read that some people — particularly Orthodox Jews — keep quiet about mental disorders so that the ill person's siblings will not be shunned by potential spouses.

"It's fairly well known that there's a genetic component to this, so part of the secretiveness is so that other brothers and sisters can marry more easily," Markels said.

This point was reinforced by Lori Campbell, the mother of a man whose mental illness manifested itself with a psychotic episode at age 20. At the time, Campbell said, it was difficult for her to speak about her son's illness because she was worried about how that would affect her other sons' lives.

A social worker in the audience said that one of her relatives suffers from the double stigma of mental illness and poverty, causing the family member to be doubly alienated from the relatively affluent Jewish community.

Markels said the difficulty in finding employment that often accompanies mental illness may be exacerbated for Jews, because of the "my son, the doctor" cliché: "that only a certain level of expertise and competence is worthy of respect. I think that cuts out a whole lot of possibilities for honorable work that people can feel good about."

Markels also suggested, however, that the differences between the stigma attached to mental illness in the Jewish community and in other communities are not "all that great and certainly there's many, many…people of other religions who have exactly the same dynamics."

During the panel discussion, the audience member who cited the stigma of poverty in the Jewish community also said the organized community has misplaced priorities. Some of the money spent on education, ex-Soviet emigres and sending children to Israel, she said, should instead be spent on providing long-term psychotherapy.

But discussion moderator Judy Schwartz, JFCS Marin branch director, pointed out that long-term intensive psychotherapy is very expensive and said that JFCS must operate within its budget.

Rodef Sholom's Barenbaum decried what he said is a trend in the nonprofit world, including synagogues, to concentrate on the "bottom line" and do only what is fiscally feasible.

The panel also included two women who told of their own suffering from mental illness.

"Ah, mania. What a wonderful experience!" recalled Judy Bader, 57, who suffers from bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness. Bader said that after four months of euphoria, she "crashed big-time" into depression and did not get out of bed for three months.

Dolores Brill described the consequences of schizo-affective disorder, which came on in her mid-30s. She said she lost her middle-class lifestyle, all her friends and her marriage. Brill now works as a case manager at a Marin County mental health office.

Markels said he is "particularly hopeful right now" because many mental illnesses can be controlled with medication, and because of new drugs that have fewer side effects than older ones.

"Bringing Down the Stigma Walls" was sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, Kol Shofar and Rodef Sholom, the Marin Jewish Community Center and the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.