Rabbis have spoken out about their own battles with mental illness ahead of this weekend’s Mental Health Awareness Shabbat, a community-wide push to break the stigma and encourage congregants to seek help if they need it.
Jeffrey Newman, the emeritus rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue, said he had battled with depression since he was a teenager.
Rabbi Newman said his depression has led to him having several breakdowns, resulting in him being hospitalised twice.
He believes early intervention is important and said young people need access to mental health support early on. “Speaking from my own experience and childhood, I think it is really important. GPs need to have the time and facilities to spot symptoms.
“When I was a teenager, I had terrible indigestion and I was depressed. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong and they put it down to me swallowing air. I never dreamed of telling my parents I was unhappy.”
He said if doctors had more time with patients, they would be able to connect the physical problems to the potential mental health issues.
“You cannot let a child walk around with a shattered sense of self. You have to help them early on. I had a headmaster who was so terrifying he made me want to commit suicide and I believe my depression was connected to me being bipolar. I struggled with being either very enthusiastic or feeling incredibly low.”
Mental Health Awareness Shabbat launched last year and is based around this week’s Parashat Bo, telling of the Plague of Darkness, which has obvious symbolism for those dealing with mental health issues. The special Shabbat is supported by communal mental health charity Jami.
Rabbi Newman said that while in his role as a communal rabbi it was his job to be outgoing and extrovert, privately this was not the case.
“When I am not working I am very introverted. The thing that got me through was having therapy,” he said.
Rabbi Newman sought therapy in his late 20s and combined that with drugs to treat his depression.
“The combination has helped with my mood swings,” he said.
It was important not to generalise when talking about mental health issues. “What worked for me might not for someone else.”
Mental Health Shabbat will see synagogues of all denominations across the country incorporate the message into services.
For Rabbi Newman, it was crucial to “combat the stigma many of us still face. We all need help at some point in our lives. We need to be open to ask for help and give it to others.”
Seeking help for himself has enabled him to cope with his depression and recognise when his symptoms are getting worse.
“I trust myself better now. I know if I don’t sleep enough that is a problem. Therapy has given me the tools to do things that I find challenging, including speaking publicly about it.”
For Rabbi Daniel Epstein, who launched Mental Health Awareness Shabbat last year, being open about mental health is important for religious leaders.
“There used to be a sense that rabbis were out of reach. But we are all human and we are in this difficult life together,” he said.
“More leaders need to show that you don’t have to be this perfect figure.”
Reform Judaism’s senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, has also suffered from depression.
“I didn’t know what was wrong,” she said. At 18 she was diagnosed with clinical depression. Luckily, her family were very supportive and her father, the late Lord Janner, encouraged her to have therapy.
“I have had therapy on and off all my adult life. It has been a blessing and has really helped not just me but also my family,” she said.
As a communal rabbi, it was important for her to “bring love and tears to the pulpit. It shows you can be alongside people in their dark place.
“Being open encourages others to articulate their own problems.”
She said if she had not sought help for her mental health issues she would “probably have been sectioned”.
Rabbi Janner-Klausner said she was concerned about the academic and social pressure put on young people.
“You can find a lot of our young people in mental health units,” she said.