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Becoming a Mental Health Advocate

How can the Jewish community be more accessible to those affected by mental health issues?

I didn’t plan to begin my journey as a mental health advocate during Mental Health Awareness Month, but that is exactly when it happened… ten years ago. In May 2006, I went through a bad emotional slide. When I initially emerged from my depression, I was very reluctant to speak about my experience. More than anything else, I was nervous that people would all of a sudden treat me as someone different. I didn’t want special treatment, I wanted everyone to just see me as the same person I had been… the one who liked to laugh and enjoy life.

Perhaps the most surprising part of my going public was that so many people started confiding in me regarding their own experience. So many of them defied my false assumptions of the stereotypical mental health struggler. These were people who were successful professionally, socially, and financially. Many were in stable, loving relationships. It was then that I realized that mental health is not a fringe issue and I was not an outlier. To the contrary, I was part of the new normal. Or better, I was part of an “old normal” that had erroneously been labeled as abnormal for too long.

One of the most common questions I receive is “How can the Jewish community be more accessible to those affected by mental health issues?” My short answers are:

1) Don’t Assume: Too many communities continue to believe that mental health is a fringe issue that only affects a small minority of their community. In reality, virtually everyone knows someone who is currently struggling and a large number are suffering silently. Just because they haven’t identified themselves, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

2) Don’t Be Afraid: Lishvaheinu (To our credit), the Jewish community is at the forefront of so many social issues. This is precisely why it’s so disheartening to see so many communities that offer inspiring programming addressing important issues, such as poverty, oppression, and environmental sustainability, yet avoid (sometimes quite deliberately) programs around issues of mental health. Talking about mental health is not a dangerous activity…. Not talking about it is.

3) Keep an Open Mind and Listen: You may say to yourself, “Unfortunately, I don’t know how to help this person… I wish I had the perfect answer but I don’t.” Of course you don’t; most times nobody does. But we all have the ability to listen and be present, and sometimes that’s enough to get a person back on the right track. No, we can’t always magically bring sunlight to a dark road but we can light a candle and let the person know that they’re not walking that road alone.

One of Elijah’s Journey’s favorite biblical texts is the story of Hannah and Eli in 1 Samuel, chapter 1. Hannah is emotionally tormented after being bullied by her husband’s other wife and is crying out to G-d. Eli the priest initially reacts in a judgmental fashion but then stops, listens, and ultimately helps to put her at peace. 

We’ve likely all had our moments when we’ve acted like Eli, unable to recognize another person’s suffering… I know I have. During this month dedicated to Mental Health Awareness, let us all challenge ourselves to be more like Eli, after he realized his mistake. Let us not be afraid to talk about mental health. Let’s keep an open mind and not make unnecessary judgments or assumptions about others. Most of all, let’s commit to listening more. Open ears can lead to open hearts, and open hearts save lives!

Efrem Epstein is the founder of Elijah’s Journey (www.elijahsjourney.net), a 501c3 committed to suicide awareness/prevention in the Jewish community. He also serves on the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Faith Communities Task Force.

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