Battling the Stigmas of Mental Health, One Jewish Community at a Time

Training clergy in handling depression is not enough to prepare them for the real world. They need ongoing support.

An illustration of a young woman suffering from depression.
Dreamstime

“Joy increases for those who welcome Adar,” says the Mishna. The Hebrew month of Adar, which begins on Friday, is home to Purim, one of the most joyous festivals.  While the thought that a simple change of dates causes a new emotional state may feel contrived, the Mishnaic claim reminds me of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression related to seasonal changes.  More than a funk or a case of the blues, SAD symptoms usually start around the fall or winter, and can have a lasting impact on one’s mental health. How might Adar trigger happiness?  I’m not sure, but something about the mantra makes sense.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental wellness and illness, since finishing reading Elyn R. Saks’ memoir "The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness". Saks is an expert in mental health law, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner and a law school dean, who lives with schizophrenia.

Living with mental illness is nothing new to me either. Depression, bipolar and anxiety disorders run in my family history like water. I myself have had major depressive episodes. These illnesses have never defined our lives and work but have always played a role in our identity – often a hidden or shameful role. But in my recent work as a rabbi, I have felt more drawn to the downtrodden, eager to counsel those suffering, or alienated, emotionally and spiritually. Why? 

Perhaps I encounter more sadness simply because there are more sad people along New York City’s streets. A recent NYC Health Department study reported that one in five adult New Yorkers suffer from depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts or a similar mental health disorder. This rings true as I think about the people and friends I encounter in my work at Base Hillel, an organization devoted to Jewish engagement. I think of an Orthodox raised young woman who now identifies as an atheist struggling to make peace with her family of origin. A transgender person suffering through a gender-binary focused religious community. Dating outside the Jewish faith and encountering family disappointment. These aren’t just isolated cases of sadness; these people also live through a clinical depression or anxiety disorder. It so happens that their community’s lack of welcome or support magnifies their own sense of otherness. Therein lies my work as a rabbi, parsing through the spiritual upheaval that an emotional or clinical episode can leave.

"There’s the Torah where you sit at home, and there's the Torah when you walk on the street," Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once said.  At an attempt at bridging the two, I thank my rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Every year, we had a week devoted to medical ethics. Scholars, community activists and teachers were invited to address soon-to-be clergy on a variety of topics such as end of life issues, living with special needs, and mental health advocacy and awareness. This was a time of year I anticipated most, as the cases we studied integrated the pastoral, religious and ethical questions rabbis would come to face. 

Now out in “the field,” I feel grateful for Medical Ethics Week as well as my units of clinical pastoral education, but they were not enough. Then again, how could they be? Unlike the ritual laws governing death and burial practices, depression may look different for each individual's experience. Having a cohort of colleagues and mentors actively processing our learning is critical. I’m lucky to be involved in the JTS program of Clinical Pastoral Education for clergy members, but it makes me wonder: how might our synagogues and institutions encourage clergy to engage actively in these types of programs addressing the emotional turmoil they face in their work? How might we as rabbis seek more support and learning as we counsel others?

A couple of months ago, I started a support space, a gathering where young Jewish professionals living with clinical depression and anxiety can talk about their experiences and struggles in a safe and confidential setting. It’s one of the programs we offer members of the Jewish community at Base Hillel. Each time we meet, a different member brings in a text, reflection or work of art to spark conversation. We then take turns sharing updates on our own mental health. As the facilitator and also as a participant, it feels like an opportunity to bridge the gap between what we might expect of clergy and the reality that we, as clergy, have our own struggles. The group is also a statement that we are allies in battling the stigmas of mental illness in our communities.  

We’re set to read segments of "The Center Cannot Hold" at the support meeting this coming month and that feels appropriate given the nature of Purim. It’s a holiday celebrating the unforeseen over the foreseen, mystery over logic, and salvation coming from, well, “another place” (Esther 4:14).  Saks’ memoir affirms just that: labels don’t account for everything and the human spirit can indeed be an indomitable force. Community empowers. Silence feeds stigma. Maybe Adar doesn’t bring about happiness any more than February brings snow, but this year and every year, I’ll be hoping for a surprise. 

Rabbi Avram Mlotek is the co-founder of Base Hillel, an organization that empowers pluralistic rabbis to turn their homes into meeting points for Jewish engagement.