Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has said the continuing stigma around mental ill health in the Jewish community “pains me enormously” in a recorded conversation with campaigner Jonny Benjamin.
Mirvis said stigma “provides an added difficulty for someone who is going through deep anxiety of one sort or another” as Benjamin told England’s most senior rabbi that “the key message is not to be embarrassed”.
The pair discussed difficulties of diagnosis – Benjamin saying “you can’t take tissue from it like you would a tumour” – and paid tribute to mental health charity Jami for arranging early interventions at school and university.
Benjamin, who ranked number one in Jewish News’ recent 40 Under 40 list, was diagnosed with schizophrenia aged 20, and told Mirvis he was greatly helped by a therapist who once told him: “It’s not your fault, it’s just how your brain is wired.”
Mirvis said he was pleased that Benjamin was now talking about his experience of mental ill health across the Jewish community, including schools, during a conversation in which the Chief Rabbi sought to educate himself.
In 2018 Mirvis won plaudits from most Jewish denominations when he co-authored a guidance document to help schools ensure the wellbeing of LGBT+ pupils, or pupils with LBGT+ parents, identifying their markedly suicide risk.
Benjamin had been preparing to take his own life before being talked down from Waterloo Bridge by a stranger who later became a friend, and told Mirvis that boys and men were three times more likely to commit suicide than girls and women.
Jonny, whose father recently founded a Jewish dads’ forum, told Mirvis that “men really struggle to open up,” adding: “This group of dads is amazing. They’re very open with each other, about how their children or wives might be struggling. It’s just a safe space where they can be open and honest, and support each other.”
Mirvis said: “Talking seems to be the key feature of how to deal with this challenging situation, not just people who are suffering need to talk but those who are around them… People need to talk.”