Creating Open and Inclusive Spaces for People Living with Mental Illness

People linking arms

April 15, 2019

  • Jewish Community
  • Jewish Life and Values
  • LGBTQ Inclusion

Mental illness is as common in the American Jewish community as in the rest of society. Nearly one in five U.S. adults experienced some form of mental illness in the last year, and one in 13 Americans experienced a substance use disorder. Additionally, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10- to 34-year olds.

So many of our lives are impacted personally or through those we love by these challenges, yet Jewish leaders often struggle to talk about mental health challenges and there are limited treatment services within the Jewish community.

As a community, how do we increase dialogue and decrease stigma around mental health and addiction? How do we build and support programs that lift up those struggling with mental illness, and make our community spaces more open and inclusive? 

As the Director of BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy, I see young people struggling with depression, anxiety, immobilizing self-doubt and fear of the future. Persevering through challenge, these young people from all walks of Jewish life build self-efficacy and resilience, and realize the power and potential that already exists within themselves. Exploring meaning, values and purpose through a Jewish lens, they learn the tools to chart a course for a brighter future.

We want to help others in the Jewish community speak openly about mental health and support those who need it most.

That’s why we partnered with the Jewish Addiction Awareness Network (JAAN) to educate clergy and Jewish community professionals around this important topic. Through the workshop developed by JAAN: “It Happens Here: Mental Illness and Addiction in the Jewish Community,” we emphasize three important lessons:

  1. Encourage community collaboration when addressing mental health and wellness.
    To create systemic change in the Jewish community, we must collaborate to create a community-wide effort. It is not enough for a single organization to champion mental health inclusion or to host a mental health awareness event. Rather, by building partnerships between clergy, lay leaders and Jewish agencies, we lay the foundation for consistent efforts to move the needle on this important issue. Additionally, by supporting and publicizing events across denominations, congregations and community organizations, we demonstrate solidarity as a community around this important issue.

  2. Invite speakers and educators to talk about mental illness in Jewish community spaces.
    When organizations host events explicitly naming mental illness and addiction, they demonstrate their willingness to confront this issue head on. Too many suffer in silence; from the mother who recently learned her teenage daughter is cutting, to the 26-year-old who just lost his job during a manic episode, this event on the community calendar tells them, “You are not alone.” By addressing mental illness in a sermon or hosting Torah study with an eye toward wellness, leaders are saying, “This happens here. Let’s talk about it and address it as a community.”

  3. Introduce practices to create more inclusive, open community spaces for those living with mental illness.
    Synagogues and community organizations can introduce simple practices to make those with mental health problems feel welcome. By naming mental illness and addiction in the Mi Shebereich, the Jewish prayer for healing, our leaders can emphasize that mental health is part of physical health, and deserves our prayers. By including books on mental illness, addiction and recovery in synagogue libraries, communities increase awareness. By reducing alcohol-centric programs, organizations promote healthier behaviors. Jewish young adult programming in particular is oftentimes alcohol-centric. Organizations should ask, “Are we using alcohol as a driver to boost engagement, or is it meaningfully adding to our programming?”

While these actions will not remove stigma overnight, they will begin to help address these issues in the Jewish community. I hope we can find strength in being the children of Israel—a people whose national narrative begins with family brokenness and displacement—and recognize that our challenges are not weaknesses; they are what help us grow and develop into our best selves. As a community, may we support those who are struggling, be open and inclusive and not fear the darker parts of life.