A groundbreaking study published this week has shone a light on the barriers faced by Charedi women with mental health problems.
The research highlights the prevalence of stigma, secrecy and shame towards those with mental health problems in strictly-Orthodox communities.
Instances of dehumanisation, individual failure and the assignment of lower social status are all common themes revealed by participants.
One woman revealed that her mother’s diagnosis with depression resulted in her entire family being no longer seen “as human” in the eyes of her community.
Another said Charedi communities perceived those with mental health difficulties as “damaged” and “weak”. In particular, the central concern of getting a shidduch (system of matchmaking) led to female mental health problems being hidden away in order to avoid damaging marriage prospects.
Mental health problems were further viewed as ‘disturbing the moral order’ by not conforming to communal expectations of normality. The women argued that this promoted an unhelpful expectation of universal happiness among Charedim.
Although the authors argue attitudes towards mental health in Charedi communities are changing and acceptance is increasing, progress remains slow.
The research was published in the academic journal, Mental Health Religion and Culture. It was conducted by Dr Charlotte Whiteley and Dr Kate Gleeson, both from the University of Surrey, alongside Professor Adrian Coyle of Kingston University London.
The academics conducted detailed interviews with Charedi women over the age of 18 with diagnosed mental health difficulties. They explored how their communities responded to the women’s mental health problems and how these responses affected the ways in which the women thought about themselves and their relationships with their community.
Previous studies have characterised Charedi communities as having a defined set of norms and expectations that are rigorously enforced. This closed social system makes stigma distinctive in Charedi communities, even though communities vary in openness.
Professor Adrian Coyle said: “Our research points to the ongoing need for carefully-devised strategies to reduce stigmatising attitudes to people with mental health conditions in Charedi communities. It also acts as a reminder that we must continue to develop resources to respond effectively to the mental health needs of Charedi community members.”
The authors argue this must be achieved by working with credible community members. Rabbis in particular are highlighted as successful advocates for educational initiatives, due to their pastoral roles in Charedi communities.
Looking ahead, Professor Coyle added: “We need to add the voices of Charedi men and other Charedi women with mental health histories, including older women. Further research to address a wider range of experienced would be extremely valuable.”
Laurie Rackind, CEO of Jewish mental health charity Jami said: ‘Whilst there are no doubt additional obstacles to combating stigma in the Charedi community around mental health, the landscape is thankfully changing. An increasing number of Charedi organisations and leaders are acknowledging the need to address this issue and are reaching out for the training, support and appropriate resources which Jami is offering. Building capability and capacity in the community is essential, particularly when there are so many barriers preventing people from seeking or accepting help.’