Jews Are Not Immune: Exploring Addiction and Mental Health

Jews Are Not Immune: Exploring Addiction and Mental Health
  • Dear All,

    Welcome to a conversation that has been in the works for months. I would like to start by thanking our panelists, Jory, Marla, Miriam, and Efrem for sharing your wisdom, experience and passion. For more on our panelists and their organizations, please click here to check out that and more on our Facebook event.

    Let's jump in. What are the unique challenges of  individuals or families grappling with addiction or mental health as Jews. Why is that? 

  • Great question!

    In my humble opinion, the challenges may not be as unique as the solutions. Everyone is vulnerable, regardless of background...But the path to recovery is different for everyone and one's personal narrative can go a long way to shaping the path forward.

    As Jews, we have a unique history and culture to draw on. One of the things we've done with Elijah's Journey is use Biblical/Rabbinic Texts to show us that these issues are hardly new and were things that even our luminaries struggled with.

    When one sees that Moses (Numbers 11) and Elijah (1 Kings 19), icons of our faith, had moments of struggle and emotional pain...We can look at ourselves and hopefully know we are OK if/when we have those moments too.
  • I agree with Efrem that our Jewish tradition and texts have so much to offer individuals and families facing addiction and mental health challenges. The Torah is filled with imperfect people who we revere, and through study and commentary, their stories and the struggles of our nation as a whole, can bring direction, solace, and healing.

    What I believe is unique for Jews is that the stigma and shame surrounding these challenges, especially addiction, are generally more pronounced in our communities. There is a long-standing myth that Jews do not suffer from addiction as much as other groups; in fact, there is a Yiddish folk song called The Shikker is a Goy (the drunk is a non-Jew). We need to break down these barriers so people can feel comfortable turning to their Judaism and Jewish communities for resources and support. That requires consistent education and programming for both clergy and community members, which is a key focus of Jewish Addiction Awareness Network (JAAN).

  • That is a great question. Research shows that stigma is one of the key barriers to people seeking mental health treatment. In my work with No Shame On U, I often see that there is a veil of secrecy in the Jewish community regarding mental health and addiction. People don't want themselves or a family member associated with mental health issues because of stigma and shame and what that might mean for the family name. So they often suffer in silence and seclusion.

    A mental health disorder is a brain disease, a physical condition like a broken leg, that needs treatment. Because mental health is not seen that way, and people typically don't want to talk about it, when a family member is going through a rough time with a mental health condition, the community doesn't typically rally around and organize meals and support in the same way as when a family member has just, for example, had surgery.

    Studies show the best way to eradicate stigma is for individuals to have contact with people with lived experience with mental health conditions. No Shame On U works to eliminate stigma and educate the community in a number of ways such as Mental Health First Aid classes and presentations and programs by and with individuals with lived experience. By normalizing the conversation, there will be less shame, and people will be more inclined to seek treatment and get the support they need from the community. 

  • Thank you for this important question. While our national narrative begins, and is so often driven by deep family brokenness and displacement,  in the modern day, we often are afraid to bring our brokenness to light, to speak openly and frankly about the struggles we face, both internally and externally.  As a people, we struggle to talk about mental health issues and addiction from the bimah, and there are extremely limited treatment services within the Jewish community. So many of our lives are impacted personally or through those we love by addiction and mental health issues, yet we often hide in the shadows, afraid to speak openly about these things that we wrestle with.

    I agree with Efrem that everyone is vulnerable regardless their background.  Shame and stigma impact all communities in seeking and receiving mental health services, but I think there may be a particular challenge in the Jewish community. When speaking with community members, too frequently I hear that people are afraid to turn to their rabbis and community leaders wth this particular challenge, and I hear from rabbis and community leaders that too they hear about a family's struggles after they've been going on for years.  We have such a unique strength in combating addiction and mental health issues, through 3000 years of tradition that explores the question, "What does it mean to live well."   Many individuals see their recovery as separate from their Judaism, but there is so much strength we can draw from tradition to aid in that process. How do we turn to our community for strength, ask for help, and learn from our sages as they explore questions like how do we comfort the mourner and the sick, and how do we practice self-care?

  • In a September 20, 2016 article in The Forward titled "Jews Must Take Mental Illness Out of the Shadows," journalist and author Stephen Fried succinctly sums up the challenge:

    "What messages do we send to our congregations every day about mental illness and addiction? Do we, for example, believe in prayers for healing diseases of the brain the same way we do for all other diseases? Do we believe in mourning deaths from the tragic outcomes of these illnesses - suicides, overdoses - the same way we do for all other diseases? Do we regularly include these diseases in the 'health' and 'wellness' that we pray for and wish for others? Do our clergy and community members offer hospital or home medical visits for these illnesses? If not, well, why the hell not?"

    Both Miriam and Jory bring out how important it is that we share with our Jewish sisters and brothers our brokenness and struggles. Doing so can have a tremendous impact on the person sharing and the people listening, whether it is a private conversation or a talk to a bigger group. As more synagogues and community organizations openly address addiction and mental health, not just with one-time events, but rather with a consistent and deliberate approach, more people will be willing share their stories. 

    Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 2:4 tells us "Do not separate yourself from the community," and yet often families dealing with these challenges isolate because they don't feel invited to engage with their community over these issues. It is the responsibility of our leadership to create a culture where addiction and mental illness are not taboo subjects.


  • annzisser Added by: JOFA
    Our family was affected by mental illness a few years ago. It didn’t take me more than a minute to reach out to my Rabbi for help and support. That’s because he’s that kind of Rabbi. And that kind of friend. But, if I wasn’t already very connected to him, I’m not so sure I would have reached out to him. That’s because as a community, I’m not so sure they were sending an open  message about mental illness. We have worked on that since then. But I’m critical. And my Rabbi might be upset that I’m saying this. But I don’t think we’ve done enough. We created a mental health chevra (committee), and created a peer group of supporters, but I’m not sure how “active” our committee is now, and that saddens me and even angers me. 

    The stigma is real. And I get why. As open as I am about our experiences, I’m also careful and cautious as to who I share it with.

    I’m also a teacher, in a Jewish day school. I think there’s much work to be done there too. 

    I want to be part of that change and work. Not always see easy and not always sure how to go about it.
  • Please see the audience question and comment above. How can people be a part of the change?

  • Ann, thank you for your comment, and sharing your family's journey.  I think part of the solution is in actions like yours -- being open to speaking up, saying, "This does happen within our community.  This is something we need to discuss."  Something I have found in traveling and speaking about BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy and mental illness in the Jewish community, is that once one person speaks, the outpouring of stories begins.  This impacts and is present in Jewish communities across the country, whether or not we speak openly about it.

    While it can be powerful for that to come from a community professional (like Miriam, Marla, Efrem, and me), it is even more impactful when that story comes from within the community -- when a congregant is open to sharing their story. By hearing this spoken about within a community, community members feel the safety of that space.  Every one of us has the power to open doors through our voices.  It is incredible to stand in a community, hear one person speak, and hear person after person then stand up and want to share some part of their story as well.  By doing this, we take away the "otherness," decrease the fear and ignorance, and help people feel heard and seen. Openness, education, and increased understanding and awareness are the beginning steps to decreasing shame and stigma. 

    I'm happy to hear your community started a mental health chevra, and saddened to hear that it's been challenging to sustain the momentum.  It takes, perseverance, and continued commitment from community members, clergy and community professionals, and Jewish agencies to sustain this work.  As these initiatives begin, I think an important question for all of us to ask (and work to answer), is how do we maintain that momentum and commitment to addressing this in our communities?

  • Ann, thanks for getting the discussion started about ways we can advocate for change in our communities, and how you might approach your own congregation and community to reignite  efforts.

    Although it's frustrating that momentum has slowed, the fact that your rabbi is approachable and supportive, and a mental health chevra has been convened, puts your synagogue ahead of many others. There is strength in numbers so one suggestion would be to have the members of that chevra meet with the rabbi to let him know that as a group, you're ready to explore  ways to increase programming. I've been told by a number of rabbis that congregants pushing for action is what gets their attention and gets things moving.

    On a wider community level, collaboration is key as Jory mentioned. In our community, we involved the rabbinic council, 

    Jewish Federation & Family Services, lay leaders, and community members. This resulted in the formation of a task force comprised of representatives from most congregations in our county. We meet quarterly to plan programming, specifically addressing addiction and recovery awareness and support, and then work together to make sure our events and programs are successful. 

    JAAN has taken this model to other Jewish communities. Some communities are more naturally collaborative than others. We found that there is often a snowball effect as more and more people commit.

    I hope this gives you some ideas and I commend you for your openness and desire to be a part of the solution in ending stigma.

  • Echoing all of the above.  

    As I see it we have two big challenges to overcome (which at first glance may appear to contradict each other..but in my opinion really don't):

    1) Encouraging Communities and Community Leaders to engage on the topic.  It sounds like Ann's community did a great job with this and can be a good Dugma (example) for those that aren't there yet.

    2) Encouraging and educating communities that ARE ready to engage on the topic to dialogue with mental health organizations who want to help.   I serve (along with Miriam) on the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention's Faith Communities Task Force and it's been a process (still ongoing) to educate Jewish Communal leaders about how dialoguing with national mental health experts can be beneficial.   I have more to say on this and may weigh in further later on in the week :)

  • Ann, Thank you so much for sharing your journey and your question. Jory, Efrem and Marla, I agree with all of what was said above. Sharing your story, Ann, has such a ripple effect. I have found in No Shame On U's work speaking at synagogues, day schools, and Jewish community events, that just by hearing someone else's mental health story - people will come up and share their journey and feel safe and know they are not alone. They feel part of a mental health community and want to be involved and engaged in being a part of taking away the shame.  The more we normalize the conversation, the less stigma and shame there will be. 

    Another important part of being a part of the change are writing and sharing articles like the one Marla mentioned and the mental health series the Jewish Week did in the fall: "Once Shrouded in Silence, Young Jews Are Demanding openness about Mental Health Disorders" was one article and another "Communal response to mental health disorders ramping up rapidly." Also, the Detroit Jewish News just published an article last month about Teen Mental Health warning signs.  The Chicago Jewish News has also written articles about depression, mental health and the community. Getting these articles out in the community goes a long way towards showing how common mental health conditions are. 

    Along with articles, the language we use can have a big impact. For example, the phrase "committed suicide" perpetuates stigma. Instead, experts strongly encourage saying "died by suicide" or "died of suicide".

    Finally, as was mentioned above, collaborations with a variety of organizations to reach different parts of the community are key. No Shame On U has been honored to work with a wide range of organizations around the community to  educate, raise awareness and take away the shame.  
  • How might one react if they believe that a friend or loved one needs help? What would be appropriate and/or helpful? Any guidance regarding how one should not react? Anything Jewish specific?

  • Great question!

    Some helpful things to say: You are not alone. I am here for you. Is there anything I could do to help you in addition to being here to listen? You're not a burden. You matter.

    Some helpful resources. If you feel someone is in a crisis, please call the 24/7 national suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) OR text the 24/7 national crisis text line: 741741.

    For non-crisis: for when you are going through a challenging time and want to talk to someone, connects you to trained listeners  and kind people to help you develop new skills.

    Helpful apps: 

    Things not to say: Get over it. Snap out of it. I don’t understand what it is you’re so upset about. You just need to start being more positive. You're so ungrateful! No one ever said that life was fair.

    The principle "Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh lazeh: All Israel (Jews) are responsible for one another" found in two Talmudic tractates - Sanhedrin 27b and Shavuot 39a - is quite relevant to situations where you find yourself with a friend or loved one needing help

  • This is a great question! The National Council for Behavioral Health teaches a Mental Health First Aid  course that outlines a crisis intervention action plan, guided by the acronym ALGEE.  ALGEE stands for: 

    Assess for risk 

    While it can be challenging to directly confront someone about difficult topics, it is important to directly ask about self-harming behavior, and not shy away from the topic.  Do not be afraid of directly asking, "Are you thinking about harming yourself? Do you have a plan?"  These questions can save a life, and help you better understand the severity and urgency of a situation. 

    Listen nonjudgmentally

    Let the person know you are concerned and willing to help, and discuss your observations with the person.  Do not express negative judgement, and separate behavior from the person (i.e., not - "You are a drunk," but "I see you drinking excessively and it worries me."  The individual's behavior is not who they are; it is an expression of an unmet need. Try to use "I feel" statements to present what you see in a way that isn't attacking or blaming. 

    Give reassurance and information 

    Treat the person with respect and dignity, and try to share pertinent information.  

    Encourage appropriate professional help 

    Identify potential professional help that may be available, such as doctors, psychiatrists, mental health professionals, peer specialists, teachers or guidance counselors, crisis hotlines, and other professional supports. 

    Encourage appropriate self-help

    Speak with the individual about appropriate self-help, such as support groups, family, friends, and faith networks, Al-Anon or Al-Ateen, exercise, relaxation, meditation, and other self-care practices. 

    As a starting point, these points can be a touchstone to return to in a difficult situation.  From the perspective of what does Judaism have to say about this, I like to turn to turn to a text from the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) to approach this question.  In the text Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish has passed away, and Rabbi Yochanan, his chevruta, is extremely distressed.  The text explores various ways Rabbi Yochanan's colleagues attempt to comfort him, ultimately unsuccessfully.  To me, this text raises a couple of key questions:  What did Rabbi Yochanan need, how did his community respond, and how could they have responded differently that might have better supported Rabbi Yochanan in his distress? How does this relate to how we support individuals and families in their struggles?  What are our automatic reactions, and are some support options more difficult than others, and thus we shy away from them?  There aren't answers in the text, but it provides a lens to explore how exceptionally challenging it can be to appropriately support someone impacted by mental illness, and how often we revert to easier, but perhaps less effective, methods because of our own lack of understanding of that distress. 

  • For the past several years Elijah's Journey has been distributing a reading in advance of Passover meant to be used on Seder Night as we open the door for Elijah (our friends at Open Siddur Project went the extra mile and translated it into Hebrew as well...Link below). 

    It recognizes how G-d reassured Elijah during the prophet's moments of emotional struggle and how we can learn from that exchange when we encounter people in our midst who are in need of similar support:

  • This is a very important question. Trying to determine how to take action when someone you care about is exhibiting behavior that causes you to worry or fear for their safety can be daunting. 

    Miriam and Jory have given some great advice and resources in their replies so I'll just chime in here with a few comments and links.

    Here are two good links that describe the warning symptoms for mental health issues and addiction:

    NAMI's Know the Warning Signs

    NIDA's Signs & Symptoms of a Drug Use Problem

    NAMI has some excellent practical advice for supporting someone during a crisis and for the long-term that can be found here. For direction in helping a loved one with substance use disorder, Al-Anon has a section on their website titled "How do I help my Alcoholic Family Member or Friend," that has specific strategies depending on the relationship (partner, parent, child, etc.).

    Self-care is paramount when helping a troubled family member or friend. You can't effectively help others if you're depleted. Know when you need to step back, don't be afraid to seek professional help for yourself, and check out ongoing support groups.

    As far as Jewish-specific suggestions, local Jewish Family Services agencies can be a wonderful resource for counseling and/or referral services to the most appropriate help. 

    There is a component of spiritual depletion in these illnesses and also in caregiving. I've found it helpful to seek out comforting Jewish texts and prayers. These will be different for everyone. For me, certain Psalms (Tehillim) speak to me in troubling times.

    I'll end with a quote from Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: 

    "A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness" - Tanya, Chapter 12. All we can do is try our best to bring some light and help to the situation.

  • Let's talk about addiction. Is the Jewish community especially susceptible to addiction challenges? Anything that we should be aware of? Rituals or holidays that require sensitivity or awareness? 

  • I'll defer to Marla as to where/if we're more susceptible to addiction, but IMHO it doesn't much matter whether the answer is Yes or No.  The fact that we have ANY people in our community (and we do) that struggle with addiction means that it is something we need to be aware of and sensitive to within our walls.

    If I knew I had someone at my Seder table who could not drink wine, I might consider drinking grape juice as well so that they needn't feel like the stigmatized outlier on that night.   I offer that up merely as a hypothetical example, every situation is different but perhaps it's a way of how we should be trying to think about the issue.

  • Thanks, Efrem. I agree with you that we need to be sensitive and responsive to all individuals and families facing addiction challenges. 

    While I wouldn't say that Jews are especially susceptible to addiction, I do believe they are equally as prone to developing substance use disorder as many other groups. There are no firm statistics on how many Jews struggle with active substance use disorder or are in recovery, but we know the numbers are significant and growing. This is evidenced by the rise in Jewish people seeking treatment for addiction as well as the recent amplified interest by Jewish communities across the U.S. and Canada to find ways to deal with this issue through a Jewish lens. 

    Alcohol and drug use are, in many ways, glorified in our culture, and with the current opioid crisis, we are facing a bonafide epidemic. Here are some alarming statistics, with the first one being of particular interest as far as demonstrating that Jews are among these numbers:

    * A study by the United Nations Office on Drugs listed the top five countries in 2013 with the most illicit drug use - #1 was the U.S., #5 was Israel. Obviously, these are the two countries where the majority of Jews live.

    * An estimated 21 million Americans 12 years or older suffer from a substance use disorder. Only 1 in 10 receive the treatment they need. (Surgeon General's Report, Facing Addiction in America, November 2016)

    * In 2016, close to 64,000 U.S. lives were lost to overdose, an increase of 21% over 2015 and nearly doubled in a decade. This is more than deaths related to vehicle accidents or gun violence. (National Center for Health Statistics)

    * In the U.S., there are approximately 25 million people in stable remission (one year or longer) from substance use disorder. (Surgeon General's Report)

    Jews are among these heartbreaking statistics.

    Now for the question about rituals and holidays. Alcohol consumption is deeply rooted in many of our Jewish practices. Kiddush, Purim, Pesach Seder, Simchat Torah, etc. In addition, there seems to be a trend for synagogues across the spectrum to hold social and/or fundraising events that prominently feature alcohol. One example is a pre-Hanukkah event called "Latkes & Vodka." Another is an end of Pesach beer tasting fest. One rabbi told me that at his congregation, members expect alcohol to be served at most events, and on occasion, they even had it available at board meetings. 

    I don't propose that our synagogues and holiday tables "go dry," but I think we need to think carefully about the prominence we give alcohol as we enjoy our rituals and get togethers. Here are some suggestions:

    * Always have alternative beverages available in the synagogue and at home. If it's for Kiddush and the like, have grape juice as an option. If it's a more social event, consider offering "mocktails" along with "cocktails" or having sparkling cider as a choice.

    * Consider reducing the number of events where alcohol is served. Not every event has to have it.

    * Get rid of "Kiddush Clubs." Leaving services to have a drinking party doesn't set a good example and supplies free flowing alcohol to those who have an issue. If they are not banned altogether, have them in an entirely separate room and designate someone to watch for excessive and underage drinking.

    * Do not encourage underage drinking. More than one Jewish alcoholic has said that their first alcoholic drinking experience was at the Seder table or at Purim celebrations at synagogue. Studies show that the younger one starts drinking or taking drugs, the more likely it is that they will develop a substance use disorder.

    * More synagogues should be open to renting space to recovery meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc. So many of these meetings are held in churches; we need to expand the number that meet in Jewish spaces. This signals that this is an issue we're willing to deal with, and makes us good neighbors in our larger communities.

    Phew...I know this post was long, but I get passionate about this!

  • Thank you, Marla, for your thorough analysis and suggestions. Along the lines of what you mentioned, while I do see there are many Jewish holiday and fundraising events that prominently feature alcohol,  in Chicago, I am seeing more and more synagogues that are either "dry" or sensitive to having non alcoholic options. 

    Less than two weeks ago, this article, "Accepting Addiction as a Jewish Issue" was prominently featured in the JUF News:

    With more attention being given to addiction in the Jewish community, the hope is that more community and synagogue events will be aware of having alternate beverages.

    The Jewish Center for Addiction and JCFS have run and continue to launch programs about the opioid crisis and addiction. Here is an article, "Nationwide opioid addiction and overdose epidemic impacts Chicago Jewish communities",  about a presentation JCA gave last year to the Jewish Women's Foundation:

    Finally, to Marla's point, here is a list of recovery meetings in Jewish spaces in the Chicago area:

  • Miriam, your Jewish community is exceptional in providing services on addiction and recovery! I often say in my talks that Chicago does the best job at this. Dr. Beth Fishman and her colleagues at the Jewish Center for Addiction do fabulous work. Jewish Addiction Awareness Network (JAAN) is very fortunate to have Dr. Fishman on its advisory board.

    Atlanta has HAMSA (Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse), a program under the auspices of their Jewish Family & Career Services. They also do a lot in serving Jewish individuals and families touched by addiction and working with synagogues on awareness.

    And, I'm going to give a shout out to my own community, Orange County, California. We went from having no programming to offering a wide range of ongoing programs. JAAN and Jewish Federation & Family Services' Substance Abuse Task Force work together with all stakeholders in the community. We've helped get recovery meetings in synagogues, created special Shabbat services that focus on addiction awareness and the wisdom of Jewish tradition as it relates to the spirituality of recovery, and  several other innovative programs. 

    JAAN works with Jewish communities to help them initiate or increase addiction and recovery programming. We're also getting close to launching a comprehensive resource website so people will know what Jewish resources are available in their communities. It will also allow communities across the country to see what's possible by learning what others are doing.

  • How did you get involved in your work? What keeps you going? 

  • It has been a long journey for me to get to where I am today, and everyday I am thankful for the opportunity to do the work I do. 

    When I was in high school, my brother was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.  He was struggling with addiction, and overdosed and attempted suicide many times.  He was in and out of the hospital, and I didn’t think he would live to see me graduate high school.  Around the same time, I lost two of my peers, one to suicide and another to an overdose.  I was lost and afraid and self-destructive, and at 15, just before Pesach, my parents enrolled me in a wilderness therapy program in Utah.

    At 15, I did something very similar to what we see in the Torah right now.  I left a land that I knew and was familiar with and entered into the unknown.  For two months, I wandered the deserts of Utah.  I learned to build a fire without matches or a lighter, made a backpack out of choke cherry and leather, and cooked over an open fire with eight other young women, who were also struggling at home.  I slept in the rain and the snow, wrestling with the deep internal brokenness and displacement that I felt defined me.  In this environment, surrounded by the beauty and austerity of the desert, I began to appreciate that my pain, my unanswered questions did not make me weak.  They were an essential part of who I was, who I am today, and they are what defined me, though not in the way I had first thought.

    When I graduated college, I went back to work in wilderness therapy, first as a field guide before transitioning to the administrative side of wilderness-based programs. While I loved the work, something was missing. While the wilderness therapy program I attended was not in the least bit Jewish, my identity as a Jew was fundamental to what I gained from that program.  I was in Utah over Passover, and the correlations were too blatant to ignore.  Mitzrayim, Egypt, means “the narrow place.”  In each generation, we are supposed to celebrate our liberation from Mitzrayim.  We were slaves, but now we are free.  In every generation, we are bound; we are held back, by external events and internal beliefs.  By depression, trauma, addiction, and immobilizing self-doubt or fear of the unknown.   And every year, we have the opportunity to explore those things that hold us back and say, “No.  I will not let this stop me from living my life to its full potential, living the life I want to lead.”

    As I struggled with the death of close friends, the fear of losing a loved one, and my own debilitating depression, and as I celebrated Pesach alone in the desert, away from my family and all that I knew, this concept of self-liberation from Mitzrayim profoundly impacted my journey and experience. Working in wilderness programs in a secular environment, it was challenging for me to fully connect to the Native American and eastern traditions utilized within the program. When I heard that Ramah in the Rockies was opening a Jewish wilderness therapy program, I knew I had to be involved.

    Working with BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy has been a gift for me. I get to give back in an environment that transformed my life. I have seen lives changed and saved by wilderness, and to be able to take that already strong model, and integrate Jewish learning, values and traditions, is like a dream come true. The Jewish tradition provides such support, strength, and guidance. And my Judaism is an essential part of what it means to live well to me, to find meaning, values, and purpose. Being able to give that gift to others keeps me going every day!

  • If you had told me 15 years ago what I would be doing today, I never would have believed you. Over 15 years ago, I was hospitalized 3 times for depression. I told very few people because of the stigma and shame. What I didn't know was the stigma I would face from some friends. One of the best examples of this is that a close friend called during my second hospitalization and said "I only want to talk to you when you're happy, so let's not talk again for a while." I never heard from her again. This ended up extending my hospital stay, because already feeling so isolated and alone, the fact that a friend wanted nothing to do with me because I was in the hospital for depression devastated me.

    Because of the stigma, I kept my hospitalizations a secret for many years. Other than the people who knew at the time, the only person I told was my husband when we started dating. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the actress Glenn Close, a big mental health advocate. I ended up telling her my whole story and it was transformative. I thought if I can tell her, I can have an impact in the Jewish community where there appeared to be such a need for mental health awareness.

    I became a 2014 PresenTense fellow which helped me launch No Shame On U, a non-profit dedicated to eliminating the stigma associated with mental health conditions and raising mental health awareness in the Jewish community and beyond. I realized that the way I would have the most impact was going public with my mental health journey. Research shows one of the best ways to eradicate mental health stigma is to have contact with persons with lived experience. I opened up about my story and the response I got showed what a need there was for an organization like No Shame On U.

    I have been so grateful for the response we have gotten from the community: being awarded a JUF Breakthrough Fund Grant, being selected for cohort 10 of the UpStart accelerator, friends and acquaintances passionate about getting involved, the reach we have been able to achieve through our community outreach programs, classes and workshops,  our large online presence where we share tools and resources daily, our distributing resources such as fact sheets and crisis information magnets at fairs and festivals, marching in parades, putting out our podcast and our educational presentations. 

    What keeps me going is knowing that we are making a difference, being able to take what I thought was such a negative experience, my hospitalizations, and making it meaningful,   meeting people and hearing that they are so grateful for what we are doing -- that they or a loved one are helped and inspired by No Shame On U.  And emails like these: [from a family with a loved one with a mental health condition]: “our family was so touched by your presentation and inspired by all of your efforts...Today was an important day for us.  Because of you, we are comfortable moving forward to educate ourselves and become involved.  Thank you.”  

      “I just wanted to share that I so appreciate the work that you are doing; it has influenced my thinking in so many ways.... feeling more comfortable talking to others about my brother's illness...  Just wanted to tell you what a difference you have made in my life and so many other people.”
  • Gosh...This is going to be a challenge to get this all into a response that doesn't resemble a novel ;)

    I went through a huge personal struggle in 2006.  As tough as it felt at the time, I came out of realizing how lucky I was that I had both the financial and emotional support to get the help I needed and felt an obligation to make a difference after.   I became involved in the local chapter of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and was invited by the then NYC Director to attend World Suicide Prevention Day at the UN in 2009. 

    At that event I heard about amazing mental health and suicide awareness initiatives being done in various communities (LGBT, Immigrant, Elderly, etc.) and thought that there really should be more dedicated programming with the nuances of the Jewish community as well.    Three months later I named the project Elijah's Journey (after Elijah's story in 1 Kings, Chapter 19) and in August 2011 we received our 501c3. 

    I/we keep fighting because we have too.   While so many other death rates are dropping, the number of suicides continue to rise.   And we still have SO much work to do to fight stigma, as well as educate well-meaning institutions on best practices to follow.

    At the 2014 AFSP Overnight Walk (I've now done 6 AFSP Overnights), two siblings spoke at the close ceremony about losing their mother to suicide and their words have stayed with me: "The worst part of losing someone to suicide is that their entire life becomes about their death."  

    Losing someone to any kind of death is painful enough...But stigma in our communities can further rob the mourners of so much more.    Last year, Elijah's Journey put out a guide to visiting a Shiva Home after a suicide (co-written by three people who have sat Shiva themselves after a suicide):

    Another thing that keeps me going is working with great allies.   Chatting with all of you this week is so refreshing and energizing.   And Miriam (who I've had the pleasure to work with now for about 3 years) is one of the best allies in this fight that anyone could ever hope for!

  • Echoing what Efrem said, working with colleagues and allies has been amazing. Efrem and Elijah's Journey have been such wonderful partners in our efforts. We are so grateful for their friendship and support.  Efrem is the ultimate connector and it has been such an honor to get to know him  and work alongside him and so many of the incredible people in his network. 

  • Like Jory, Miriam, and Efrem, the impetus for my work came from a painful personal experience that has resulted in some surprising blessings.

    In 2006, my husband and I learned that our older son, who was 16 years old at the time, was abusing drugs and alcohol. We were shocked, confused, and scared. I remember thinking over and over again, "How could this happen?" We misguidedly thought this couldn't happen to "good" families, loving families, educated families, and especially not to Jewish families that put Jewish values, practices, and community at the forefront of their family life. We didn't know then that substance use disorder is a chronic brain disease that can potentially afflict anyone in any family.

    As active members of our Jewish community, we looked to our community for guidance, support, and acceptance. While some were supportive, we discovered that addiction is seen by many as something to be ashamed of, denied, and avoided. Our family felt isolated from the community that had been such an integral part of our lives. Eventually, we became unaffiliated for four years before affiliating again three years ago. The pain of being distanced from Jewish life greatly added to the pain our family was enduring alongside our eldest son.

    In early 2015, I read Recovery, the 12 Steps & Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Paul Steinberg. In the book, Rabbi Steinberg shares his own journey of recovery, and explores how the principles of Jewish spirituality align with 12-Step recovery principles. This was the first time these two important parts of my life were brought together. Further, Rabbi Steinberg named what I had been experiencing. When I read these passages, "What I know for myself now is that I will not contribute to Jewish ignorance about my disease," and "My Judaism is not separate from my addiction, but integrated into it," I knew right then and there that I was going to do addiction and awareness advocacy work in the Jewish community.

    My work began locally, and then in April 2016, JAAN was launched. Since that time, hundreds of hours have been devoted to building partnerships, increasing awareness, educating clergy and communities, and supporting Jewish families and individuals affected by addiction.

    When I read articles like the one in the Atlanta Jewish Times (August 2016) that focused on five mothers who buried their children ages 20 to 31 within feet of each other in a Jewish cemetery that states, "In addition to losing their children, they feel as if they lost their friends and community as well," I know there is work to be done. When I receive an email like the one from a Jewish mother who says, "It was difficult to reach out initially because I felt embarrassed to name what was going on. I'm so glad I did and I'm so grateful for JAAN," I know there is work to be done.

    I'm happy to say that after many years of ups and downs, today (it's a one day at a time deal) our son is actively in recovery and reclaiming his life. We too, are recovering as a family, and a big part of my healing is working with others to shatter stigma, and helping to replace it with hope, understanding, and compassion.

  • Wow... I am so moved by your experiences and your truths. Thank you for sharing. I hope that providing a platform for others to learn honors you and your work. Our conversation is about to wrap up. Is there anything that we have not covered that is critical to this conversation? Anything to ask or add? 

  • emilyssb Added by: JOFA

    I want to speak to Marla's comments about the article in The Forward. You made some excellent points. Personally, I've always wondered why we do not include "invisible" issues and ask God to guide all caregivers when saying the Mi'Sheberach. It may not be a verbatim translation of the prayer but I think it is. definitely within the spirit of the prayer and would go far in terms of making these issues part of the norm for this prayer. 

  • annzisser Added by: JOFA

    These are so wonderful to read. And validation that we’ve been doing the right things, and sometimes things lie a bit dormant until people push again. Maybe it’ll be me, or maybe someone else. But, I push cautiously. Send articles and blogs I see, and in that way I open the door again.

    I, too, wrote two blogs. One, I wrote through JOFA. Don’t know if it’s appropriate to share them here, but I can.

  • Emily, in that same article, Fried says "As for the spoken and sung Mi Shebeirach, it would be powerful if rabbis used the moments before that prayer to reinforce that mental illness and substance use disorders 'count' as medical conditions for which you can offer prayers of healing. Just repeating that idea in services could have a real impact on a community." Many of the clergy who have participated in our workshops have started doing this on a regular basis, including my own rabbis. It is indeed very powerful and validating, and it's so simple. Adding that we should pray for caregivers as well is an excellent idea.

  • One closing comment that may be an obvious one is that these issues frequently overlap. Many people who have a substance use disorder are self-medicating one or more mental illnesses, and if you drink enough alcohol or do enough drugs, you can develop or exacerbate mental health problems. That's why it's good that many organizations are working from different angles on awareness, prevention, and treatment. It's been a pleasure being a part of these discussions with Jory, Miriam, and Efrem who each represent life-saving programs. Thank you to Sharon and JOFA for hosting and moderating this blogcast!

  • I want to say thank you to JOFA and Sharon for hosting this important conversation, Miriam, Efrem, and Marla for your contribution both to the dialogue we have had here over the past few days, and the impact of your work on the broader community.  While we need to increase awareness, education, and dialogue about mental illness and addiction in the broader Jewish community, it is important to recognize the great work that is already being done.  More and more communities are speaking about this, creating task forces, identifying the need, and creating action plans to begin to elevate the conversation.  Organizations like JAAN, No Shame on U, Elijah's Journey, and BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy have the potential to change lives in the Jewish community, and hopefully can be a wellspring for action for other community organizations. 

    I oftentimes think of BaMidbar's work through the lens of the story of Nacshon ben Aminadav. BaMidbar opened programming on January 24th, 2018, and that first Shabbat we read the Torah portion Beshalach.  In this Torah portion the Israelites reach the Red Sea and cross from Mitzrayim, Egypt, into the Midbar, the wilderness.  As Moses prays, the Israelites weep, and the Egyptians pursue, an unlikely hero steps forward. The Talmud tells us that Nachshon ben Aminadav walks into the sea, not knowing what the future holds, but knowing that he cannot return to the slavery of Egypt. As Nachshon moves forward, taking a leap of faith, the sea parts and a pathway emerges.  In the Talmud, God speaks to Moses saying, “There’s a time for prayer and a time for action.”  Moses had prayed, and nothing happened.  But a young and unknown man took a leap of faith, stepping into the sea, and embraced the infinite possibilities that lay before him, rejecting the constraints of his past.

    By taking this first step to open BaMidbar, BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy and Ramah in the Rockies hope to open a pathway forward, to change the landscape of our Jewish community by offering those who struggle with mental health issues and substance abuse a place grow and heal within our own community. Just as Moses’ prayers did not part the Red Sea, as a community we cannot pray for mental health issues, trauma, and substance abuse to go away. We need to do something. I hope this conversation can be an impetus for others in the Jewish community to think about how they too can further the conversation and increase support, awareness, and resources within the Jewish community.

  • Big thanks to JOFA and Sharon for hosting and moderating the important conversation in this blogcast. It was honor to serve on this panel with Jory, Efrem and Marla. Thanks for all of the tremendous work you are doing. May we all continue to raise awareness, end stigma and improve lives together. 

  • Today, Rosh Chodesh Adar, should be one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar but unfortunate current events have made it a very gloomy day for many of us.  
    And, as is often the case, it was made even worse by inaccurate and dangerous mental health stigmatization that often follows these tragic events.   As inspiring as this week was (and I so grateful to JOFA, my fellow panelists and all participants for fighting the good fight and moving the needle), my FB Feed today was a reminder of how far we still have to go.
    Let's keep up the good work...The world needs us!
    Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov.
  • Efrem, Marla, Miriam and Jory- Thank you for sharing your thoughtful insights and more importantly, for the incredible work that you do. I am grateful and hopeful that you are helping our community move forward. I hope that everyone reading this conversation shares it with your community stakeholders, and with your family and friends. We can change the status quo. We can rid our communities of any sort of stigma or shame in order to make sure that all of our community is cared for, welcomed and engaged.  Thank you everyone!