By José MARTIN, Founder of Talking Matters, Stamford Hill.
For more than 20 years, I have provided mental health services to the Jewish community, which has often involved training non-Jewish employees to do likewise. One of the first questions I ask is: “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Jews?”
When I first introduced this question, I used to assume the answers may be anti-Semitic, so I was mightily surprised when most said either “clever” or “rich.” What is it about us, I wondered, that gives a perception of us being clever or rich, and what does that have to do with mental health?
As a long-term mental health service user myself, I have a vested interest in the subject. I have tried to commit suicide three times, suffered from postnatal depression and years of undiagnosed depression, I wondered why Jews didn’t readily access the mental health services available, often until it was “too late”.
It is not uniquely a Jewish issue, but is apparent in many of the smaller communities, especially in the other ethnic communities. So what is it that’s stopping us? The biggest factors are stigma and shame, closely followed by the fear of others knowing.
When we catch a cold, or break a leg, we readily go to the doctor or hospital, so why don’t Jews do that when we need emotional, psychological or mental support?
I would hesitate a guess that even if we knew deep down that we needed this type of help, we would assume that “this too will pass”. We all bear the shame of being seen as “not coping”, as a failure, or less than how we would like to think of ourselves, never mind what others might think.
There is often a feeling of loss, too. The loss of knowing exactly who we are, of so-called “normality,” of how life might have been, of status within the family or com- munity, of friends who decide not to be associated with a sufferer, or the loss of employment, which can be a financial hammer blow.
Then there is the dreaded neighbour – the Lashon hara, the misinformation. For some, this can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, considered worse than the actual illness. It is the idea that friends and family may use words like “nuts,” “insane” or “mad”. This is hurtful and damaging, but ignorance means many also assume it is “catching,” or worse – “genetic”.
In our community, the one issue that holds all our fears and anxieties about mental illness is encapsulated in the question: “Can I pass it down to my kids?” Herein, I think, lies the answer to why we don’t like admitting we need mental help.
The first commandment (Go forth and multiply) is, for us, an instruction to get married and produce the next generation, after which we are told “……and you shall teach them….”
If we or our offspring are seen as unable to teach or to learn due to mental illness, then we are unable to do one of the greatest mitzvahs of all: to equip our children with the mind, body and soul skills for survival in this world.
Ours is a history of survival. We want our children not just to survive but to do better than ourselves. We feel a need to do better and be successful in whatever path we choose. If we are seen to be unable to do this, due to emotional turmoil or mental illness, we can find ourselves being shunned, cast-off and isolated. One lady who took part in community research summed it up when she said: “We are not so worried about the condition as the social reaction.”
From my experience, we all hold the key to our own mental health. We should look after our mind as well as our body. This can mean simple things, such as taking time out if you get stressed.
One of my favourite sayings is: “I’ve lost many things in my life, but the thing I miss most, is my mind.”
It’s true that Jews don’t like accessing mental health services, so we need to stop, think, and start being honest with ourselves. The rest of the world perceives us as clever and rich, so let’s be truly clever and take steps to safeguard our mental health, to support those who need support, to learn and banish our own fears, anxieties and ignorance.