Mental illness is a Jewish issue that we must address

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Mental illness. What does it conjure up for you? For some it provokes pity or fear. For others, shame. But for many, it reflects a reality of one's life or the life of a loved one.

Oct. 6-12 was Mental Illness Awareness Week. Mental illness is finally moving into the mainstream of our community's consciousness. The many insights that come with awareness have led to a greater appreciation for how we provide services in our community. One important recognition is that, like all illness, resources must be holistic: spiritual, psychological and physical.

While any community typically has psychological and medical resources available, spiritual resources may not be. And yet such resources are critically important. In fact, recent studies have shown that mental health generally is better among those who engage in some kind of regular spiritual life. Simply put, any aspect of mental health, and specifically, any mental illness must include an understanding of how spiritual resources can support both those with mental illness and their loved ones.

Many with mental illness, like those with any other kind of illness, often speak of spiritual support as crucial to their overall sense of life's challenges. And over half of those with a mental illness, as well as their loved ones, first go to a member of their clergy and their place of worship in their search for support and help. Whatever the needs may be, clergy and our houses of worship must be places of refuge and spiritual comfort.

We already know a lot. One in five families has a member with mental illness. Generally, for each person with mental illness there is at least one caregiver who needs a variety of support services to adequately attend to their responsibilities.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins are engaged in a long-term study on the possible genetic link among Ashkenazi Jews for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Illness, job stress, emotional shifts in one's family, and spiritual despair can all lead to anxiety that can trigger mental illness.

We already know, from our experience with breast cancer, AIDS and other illnesses, that silence kills. And so we need those with mental illness and their caregivers to speak up. We need to listen. After all, so many of our Torah portions begin with the words "God spoke to Moses," who in turn speaks to us. There was only one Moses but his legacy tells us that God wants us to talk to one another and to listen. Each of us is created uniquely in God's image and so every voice is, mysteriously, an echo of God's voice.

When we listen, we hear stories of successful diagnosis and treatment. We hear stories of tremendous stress in the job market, in social relationships and in family life. We hear stories of brokenness. We hear stories of deep healing. Every life is filled with a journey of faith, resiliency and pain.

From it all we can learn the tremendous courage it takes for someone with mental illness to face each day. Many comment that their places of faith and their clergy are important factors in their sustained recovery. Their life experience can offer all of us insights into the ways faith and a faith community offer a sustained sense of wholeness and healing.

Someone with a mental illness is faced with a shortfall in insurance coverage. Recent efforts on the federal level and in many states have focused on more comprehensive mental illness coverage. Indeed we are sadly familiar with too many stories of families ruined because our health care system turned away a loved one with mental illness, who then acted in violent and destructive ways. You may want to become more educated to efforts in Congress to pass the Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act, and then let your representatives know what you think.

Those with mental illness suffer in the job market as well. As we all know, whenever a person looses his or her ability to earn a living, the entire community feels the effect.

Many with mental illness face employment challenges that threaten their livelihood. And where livelihood is threatened our tradition tells us that we must support the dignity of parnasa, earning a living.

Mental illness is a Jewish issue. Many loved ones feel they are on the outside of the community when they reveal the reality of mental illness in their family. And where one is not welcomed, our tradition tells us that we are to welcome the stranger because we were once strangers.

Mental illness services are often not covered by insurance policies. Bikkur cholim, the commandment to heal the sick, asks us to attend to the ill in a full and comprehensive way.

Mental illness is a Jewish issue because we all know the pain of loss and the edge of depression in grief. And where there is loss the community is to surround the mourner in a safety net of consolation.

Mental illness is a Jewish issue because wherever there is any brokenness, we are asked to engage in tikkun: repair.

There is much we can all do, and a comprehensive approach is best. We encourage you to talk more about this issue, to incorporate mental illness understanding into your bikkur cholim work, and to encourage those you know to take advantage of all the social service, spiritual, religious and political resources and agencies available in our community.

Will just one month of awareness change everything? No. But if we can link insight to faith then we can harness the power to make life with mental illness better each and every day.

Mental illness. What does it conjure up for you? We hope the day will come when these words will be met with deep understanding and support because true health comes when we move from stigma to knowledge.