Jews grapple with stigma, pain at mental health conference at Temple Beth Jacob

Mark Gottlieb was a promising scientist who suddenly found himself battling bipolar disorder and began thinking of himself as a “bum on relief.” The shame was staggering, he told an audience during a recent Jewish community mental health conference at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City.

Gottlieb, who holds a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from MIT and is now a health physicist for the California Department of Health Services, credits his connection with Judaism as key to his recovery.

“There are tremendous spiritual values in our heritage,” Gottlieb said. “Tshuvah is the remedy for despair. It is in our daily liturgy, and we can return to goodness, love and life. The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.”

More than 40 percent of those seeking help for emotional problems approach a spiritual adviser first, said Rabbi Eric Weiss of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, one of the sponsors of the free Oct. 20 conference “Help, Hope and Healing: Mental Illness and the Jewish Community.” Yet “most of us don’t get the information we need to provide support.”

That’s why Weiss joined more than 100 spiritual leaders, mental health professionals and others who converged at the Peninsula Jewish community’s first conference on mental health. Like Gottlieb, many of those present had grappled with mental illness themselves or with a family member.

Four of the 10 leading causes of disability in the United States are mental disorders, organizers pointed out, and more than 90 percent of those who kill themselves have a diagnosable — and treatable — mental disorder.

That message was particularly pertinent in a community that had been stunned by the Oct. 7 suicide of a Jewish freshman at Palo Alto High School, Steven Charles Wertheimer.

Ensuring that life-saving information reaches those in need was a major goal of the conference. Another was to break down the stigma, confusion, ignorance and shame that impede healing and prolong suffering

“Mental illness is not a curse or a problem that can be blamed on an individual or a family,” said Amy Rassen, associate director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, another sponsor.

The conference was designed to prepare the Jewish community for providing a greater degree of hope and help. And one phrase borrowed from Rabbi Hillel kept coming up throughout the day: “If not now, when?”

Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray of Beth Jacob delivered a blessing, calling on the community to open the doors to better support, care and guide the mentally ill.

“We’re here for you,” he emphasized, recalling the teaching of the Talmud to “give me your hand.”

The message was that the Jewish community must provide more help and healing for those affected by mental illness, including family members. That’s why organizations such as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Beth Jacob and other area synagogues and community groups co-sponsored the event.

At the outset, several pervasive myths were challenged, including that Jews are somehow more vulnerable to serious mental illness or have higher rates of mental illness. The actual statistics show that Jews suffer at a comparable rate to the general population. Possibly the willingness of Jews to seek therapy might give the impression that there are more mentally ill Jews, but that is a myth, organizers said.

Another issue discussed was that denial within the Jewish community itself and an insistence that “everything is all right” might prevent those who need it from getting help.

During a panel discussion, participants offered their own perspectives on mental illness and Judaism.

In addition to Gottlieb, Dolores Brill, a mental health case manager at Marin General Hospital, shared her story of facing the onset of mental illness that “changed everything.” At the time, she was in her mid-30s.

“Life will never be ‘normal,'” Brill noted, but with the help of medication, she has returned to a productive existence, recently earning the Celebrating the Uncelebrated award, presented by Martin County Mental Health Board for her work with the mentally ill.

Panelist Alex Markels, a social worker for JFCS, sees the great demands on JFCS’ resources as 45,000 people — 1,000 at any given time — avail themselves of its services. He cited the discredited but persistent fallacy that major mental illness was “caused by the mother” and also pointed to societal pressures that make it difficult for mentally ill people to return to work.

Rabbi William Cutter, a literature professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health, offered a perspective of one who has been “a consumer at all ends of this problem through my own family history.”

He proposed a “spiritual renaissance” to battle the tendency to stigmatize the “other” or “the rejected person,” reminding listeners of the Talmud’s teaching of “blessed be the One who made creatures different.”

Panelist Sharon Roth, a registered nurse and San Mateo resident, told of her personal journey as the parent of a son whom she adopted at 3 months old and is “persistently, chronically mentally ill.” Her “delightful child” was a high-achieving musician, president of his youth group and a dean’s list student. But at age 17, he suddenly “could not get out of bed.” He was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For Roth, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill offered the support she needed to help her son and overcome the stigma.

“We need to get our people the best care possible,” she said. That means parity laws — treatment of mental illness as equal to physical illness for purposes of insurance and care.

Linda Boroff

Linda Boroff is a writer on the Peninsula.