How Judaism could do more to acknowledge mental health

Sharon Ross says religious leaders can help those who are suffering


I’ve had a fair few experiences with mental health in the last 20 years — three times in a psychiatric hospital, so many different therapies that some therapists might not have heard of them all, and countless anti-depressants. It’s been a tough journey and one that I’ve only been open about in the last few years. 

But for some reason, and perhaps counter-intuitively, during this time my faith has grown stronger and my connection to Judaism deeper.

However, the road has been bumpy and sometimes I have swerved, not knowing how being Jewish could help me in my particular predicament. 

Along this road I have learnt some ways in which being Jewish has helped me heal, but I also believe a Jewish approach to mental health could do more to help those suffering.  

I’d like to share with you four ideas about what this could mean. 

The first is that religious teachers should speak more frequently about what Jewish texts can say about depression and anxiety. After years of struggling with what the Torah could mean to me personally I came to see Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) as a book devoted to overcoming depression. 

“Futility of futilities! All is futile! What profit does man have for all his labour which he toils beneath the sun.”

I could relate to the author’s pain and it gave me strength to know that Jewish tradition really did understand what I was going through. And other Jewish sources have a lot more to say about depression and anxiety — Job, King David and even Moses are good examples.

I believe if teachers shared some of these ideas it could give comfort to people who are ill in this way.

A second idea is that community members should be encouraged to pray for those with mental health conditions.

When I was in a psychiatric hospital, and this is by no means a criticism, I do not think it would have occurred to those who knew where I was to pray for me in the same way it would have been if I was in hospital for a physical health condition.

I was in hospital because I was at risk of dying. But I don’t think most people saw it that way. Praying for others gives you an opportunity to think about them — they don’t even need to be formal prayers — all these thoughts can in some way make a difference.

But if people don’t even think it is appropriate to pray for someone who has a mental health condition, then we as a Jewish community are doing something wrong.  
On Shabbat morning, just after the weekly portion is read, a special prayer is said for those who are sick. Sometimes the names of the sick people are read out loud by the person leading the service. To encourage the community I would like the leader to explicitly say “please pray for someone whether they have a mental or physical illness”. This would be a small step but an important one in encouraging a more Jewish approach to mental health.

My third idea is that everyone in the community should learn more about mental health — we are the people of the book, after all. Over the past few years, I have learnt a lot about other people’s mental health by talking to those with different conditions and reading about it in the news and on TV.

Awareness of mental health has improved dramatically and there are organisations such as the Jewish Association for Mental Illness (Jami) which offer great training programmes to improve knowledge within the community.

Just as we know that some signs for meningitis are a blotchy rash and a headache, we should also know that some signs of bipolar are periods of being easily distracted and feeling self-important and other periods of a loss of interest in life.

Lastly, and this, I think, is the hardest idea to implement, is that pastoral care should be improved for those who are mentally unwell. Religious leaders have made great strides in improving their knowledge of mental health — some have even gone on mental health first aid courses or become trained counsellors. But somewhere along the line I think this is missing the point.

Mental illness is a deeply spiritual illness — you question the point of life — and although it would be inappropriate for a religious leader to give the ongoing support that a counsellor could provide, I feel that there is a place for them to give spiritual guidance.

I used to feel guilty about feeling suicidal — it was, I thought, somehow un-Jewish because Judaism is a life-affirming religion. But then, after visiting many doctors and discovering what was bothering me (poor processing, memory, and decision-making due to epilepsy and the side effects of anti-epileptic medications) I realised I had nothing to feel guilty about.

God knew why I was feeling suicidal and the God that I ascribed to didn’t want me to feel guilty in addition to everything else. But I realised that I had come to this conclusion by myself — no-one had advised me how to approach this illness from a perspective of my relationship with God. 
Maybe I wouldn’t have been comfortable if they had, and part of my journey was coming to this conclusion by myself.

But I also started to believe religious leaders were more comfortable speaking to congregants who had been through a bereavement or who had cancer than a mental health condition, and that pastoral care seemed to be at the bottom of their priority list compared to responsibilities over bar and batmitzvahs, sermons, teaching and or mediating inevitable broiguses.

It’s not the fault of religious leaders that pastoral care has fallen to the wayside — there are many demands on their time and there has, quite rightly, been a professionalisation of the counselling role, but I still think for a Jewish approach to mental health there is a place for Jewish leaders to give pastoral care to their congregants. 

With mental health awareness increasing, a Jewish approach to mental health is well within our grasp. I hope and pray that it is found.

Sharon Ross is a freelance writer who blogs about mental health and epilepsy.

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