Jewish groups to hold mental health conference Sunday

Titled “Help, Hope and Healing: Mental Illness and the Jewish Community,” the 12:30 to 5 p.m. event is designed to break the silence over mental health. The half-day conference is open to the entire community.

It will include presentations from health-care providers and health care consumers, and will include breakout sessions addressing several subjects such as treatment options, research, legal issues and the Jewish perspective on mental illness.

One highlight will be an hourlong panel discussion at 1:15 p.m.. William Cutter, a rabbi and professor, will be one of five participating panelists.

Despite advances that promise new hope for the one in five families affected by mental illness, the stigma and silence surrounding those with mental disorders persists, say organizers. Even within religious communities, which typically provide support to the ill, misunderstanding abounds. And some maintain that among Jews, who traditionally prize the life of the mind and extol intellectual achievements, there is even greater shame.

“When my son first got sick almost 20 years ago, there wasn’t a strong enough infrastructure in our community to provide help,” says San Mateo resident Sharon Roth, whose son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in high school. “Things have come so far, and with the spiritual support he’s receiving now, we feel safe and accepted. We continue to move towards healing, even though his condition is chronic.”

Amy Rassen of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, one of the conference sponsors, says, “We help hundreds of individuals and families on any given day who are experiencing mental illness or suffering from the stigma our society attaches to this group of people. This conference is about getting the message out loud and clear that mental illness is not a curse or a problem that can be blamed on an individual or a family. There is hope and help available.”

Rabbi Eric Weiss of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, another sponsor, says spiritual support is essential. “Consistent findings over the past 20 years show that more than 40 percent of people initially seeking help for emotional problems go first to their clergy person. But sadly, most of us don’t get the information we need to provide support. We need that information now, before people lose faith, and before more lose their lives.”

The event is also co-sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, area synagogues and other Jewish community organizations.