Conference begins the dialogue on mental health

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A century after a secular Viennese Jew opened a window on the mind, 125 professionals and “consumers” gathered at a Los Altos Hills synagogue Sunday, Dec. 11 to draft a Jewish community response to mental illness.

Those who attended “Yehi Or: Shining a Light on Mental Health/Illness” at Congregation Beth Am weren’t talking id, ego or Oedipus. Armed with nuts-and-bolts questions, the largely female audience sought help with such issues as “Who can I call when my adult daughter runs amok?” “How can I tell if a child has mental illness?” and “Is there anything I can do when my resistant bipolar relative won’t seek help and won’t take medication?”

The event, designed to “create a climate of acceptance, caring and compassion” in the community, “grew out of personal experience — my own and that of other members of the congregation,” said Jane Marcus, conference chair and president of Beth Am Women, one of the sponsors. Marcus had discussed her battle with depression during a service held this past summer.

Beyond orthodox advice on meds and mania, participants received answers from a surprising old source: Judaism. “Never underestimate the power of lighting candles, performing mitzvot and attending synagogue,” said Mark Gottlieb, a self-described “mental health consumer,” past president of what is now called the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and a member of Beit Midrash Ohr HaChaim in Berkeley.

“Every good act builds self-esteem, diverts attention from the self and the quagmire of self-absorption, and results in positive accomplishments,” Gottleib added. “Seek every opportunity to do good.”

Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, one of the conference sponsors, addressed “the shanda factor,” noting that in the Jewish community “we have the problem of wanting to be perfect.” With mental illness, she said, “the stigma is part of the devastation. People understand a lot more about kidneys and hearts than brains.”

In smaller group sessions, rabbis, physicians and therapists addressed such topics as “Coping When You Are in Pain,” “Coping When Someone You Love is in Pain,” and “Senior Moments, Senior Needs.”

Discussing the dilemma of caregivers, Navah Statman, the president of NAMI Santa Clara County (National Alliance on Mental Illness), told about her own struggles as the mother of three, including a 33-year-old daughter with bipolar disorder. For years, she was told there was nothing wrong with her child, that the problem was with the parents.

Instead of sweating the small stuff, Statman said, families need to look at the big picture: managing medication, dealing with SSI, and providing wills and trusts. Ninety-five percent of those who have an episode of mental illness will have a repeat episode, especially if they’re young, she said.

Offering a Jewish perspective, Rabbi Aliza Berk of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center of the Institute on Aging, another conference sponsor, drew on the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, focusing on the importance of spiritual practice, finding joy and “a sense of wholeness in life.” Berk, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, also suggested such activities as journaling and meditation.

Leslie Fried Behar, a Los Altos clinical psychologist, observed that caregivers themselves are subject to physical and mental illness exacerbated by stress. The more support families get, including from one another, the better they’ll be able to care for their loved ones and themselves.

Families, Behar said, have to stop blaming themselves or trying to reason with someone who is not reasonable. In addition, one needs to “separate the person from the disorder” and “keep a sense of humor.”

With mental illness, however, questions are often more prevalent than answers. One woman in the audience said she attended the session hoping “the community would come up with a solution” to a family problem.

The conference was designed to “begin the dialogue,” said Louise Stirpe-Gill, a psychologist and member of Beth Am Women. “There will be a follow-up.” In fact, one is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 12 at Beth Am, where organizers will mull over such possibilities as a synagogue-based support group. That idea was broached during the conference by Beth Am’s senior rabbi, Janet Marder, who asked if participants would be interested. A large number raised their hands.

The Beth Am event was part of an ongoing dialogue, both locally and nationally, according to Marcus.

Locally, it is a prime focus this year of Beth Am Women. Nationally, mental health is now on the agenda of synagogues throughout the country, according to Rabbi Richard Address, a speaker and director of the Department of Jewish Family Concerns of the Union for Reform Judaism, a conference sponsor.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].