Opening Up About Mental Health is a Jewish Value

Judaism is grounded in community, ritual and education — all structures associated with better mental health.

This is a Paid Post by Repair the World. Alma editorial staff had no role in its production.

When I began my graduate program in social work in the hopes of becoming a therapist, my primary drive was personal. I knew, from my own experience, that access to safe, intersectional, inclusive mental health care and the ability to have powerful conversations about mental health could be literally life-saving. I wanted to pay my own experiences forward.

With about 20% of all American adults — that’s about one in five — experiencing mental illness, mental health is far from a solitary concern. With an average delay of 11 years between onset and treatment of mental health concerns, there is a huge correlation between mental health disorders and incarceration, education inequity and homelessness.

As much as I knew all of that, it wasn’t until recently that I learned how important caring for the mental health of ourselves and our communities is, not just as a secular value, but as a Jewish one. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) considers a personal connection to religion and spirituality to be a protective factor for mental health. “Both religion and spirituality can have a positive impact on mental health,” Luna Greenstein writes for NAMI. “They can help a person tolerate stress by generating peace, purpose and forgiveness.”

In my own work and in my personal practice, I’ve discovered that Jewish teachings and values are a beautiful example of the ways that a connection to religion can positively impact mental health. Judaism is grounded in community, ritual and education — all structures associated with better mental health. Many Jewish spaces and organizations are already doing the work of directly connecting Jewish teachings to programs that can build better mental health, such as Repair the World, a Jewish nonprofit that mobilizes Jews and their communities to engage in meaningful acts of service while having conversations about mental health to build connection and reduce stigma.

Jewish values and teachings, especially, lead beautifully into cultivating spaces that emphasize mental health and mental health care. While some more traditional teachings can be interpreted in stigmatizing ways, emerging organizations like the Blue Dove Foundation are working to draw directly from Jewish values and wisdom to reduce the stigma around mental illness and addiction in Jewish communities.

The Blue Dove Foundation grounds this work in Jewish values, or middot, the principles and characteristics that form the foundation of Jewish community norms. Middot can empower us to connect Jewish wisdom to mental wellness. They identify middot such as b’tzelem Elohim (we are all created in the Divine image), chesed u’Gevurah (balancing of lovingkindness and boundary-setting), nosei b’ol im chaveiro (sharing one’s burdens with friends), and pikuach nefesh (preserving life), among others, as Jewish values that can and should be applied to reducing stigma around mental health and framing conversations around mental health as integral to the health of the Jewish community.

In practice, this can take any number of forms in Jewish spaces, from the emergence of refu’at hanefesh (healing of the spirit) committees at synagogues to Jewish organizations prioritizing the mental health of their employees through flexible work policies, providing health insurance covering mental health care, and granting time off for mental health treatment. But even beyond institutional buy-in, simply having conversations around mental health makes an incredible impact.

According to a 2018 survey, 25% of adults indicated that stigma around mental health was their primary barrier for seeking mental health treatment. When we break the silence around mental illness and open the door to have conversations — among friends, among families, among partners — we start to break down that barrier. The Blue Dove Foundation #QuietingTheSilence platform is aimed at starting those conversations in the hopes of empowering more people to ask for help, speak up about their own mental health experiences, and take action toward eliminating the shame and stigma that has existed in Jewish spaces for so long.

This is especially important now. We already knew that reducing the stigma around mental illness and massively increasing resources for and accessibility of mental health care goes beyond caring for individuals in our communities — it’s part of caring for our communities as a whole, but the past year has made that even clearer. Symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders have increased by about 30% since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Young adults, communities of color, essential workers, and adults experiencing economic insecurity — and particularly people at the intersections of two or more of those groups — experienced increases in anxiety and depressive disorders at higher rates than the general population, especially as mental illness risk factors like isolation, job loss and burnout continued over the course of the pandemic.

Organizations like Repair the World are working to combat some of these factors by creating new opportunities for digital volunteering and socially distant service programs. Volunteering is known to support mental health: According to Ricky Lawton, associate director at Simetrica Research Consultancy, volunteering “boosts our sense of social connection,” but can also be intrinsically rewarding — that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you’ve done something to help something else is a protective factor for your mental health, in addition to making a positive impact.

Tikkun haNefesh — caring for and repairing our spirits — can’t be done alone, and all of this impact starts with each of us and our willingness to be open, vulnerable, and to do the hard work of breaking the stigma about mental health in our Jewish communities. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Repair the World and the Blue Dove Foundation have partnered to create a guide for starting conversations about mental health, aimed at supporting mental health and making those hard conversations easier.

Even if we don’t immediately see the impact, every conversation we have creates a ripple effect. We’re not required to complete the work of repairing our world and our communities, but we’re not free to ignore it, either. Sometimes the work is as simple as sitting down to talk with a friend. This month, let’s make it happen.

This is a Paid Post.

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