September 17, 2019

Let it go: Removing the stigma

I never met my paternal grandfather, even though he lived until I was 13. Aaron Dov Krotinger was one of the first graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York with a degree in Jewish education, and he once served as a principal for many religious schools. But because of severe mental illness, he lived in a New York state hospital from 1926 until he died in 1974, teaching Torah classes only to the other inmates. When I was young, my parents, adopting the conventional wisdom of the times, told my sister and me that our grandfather had died when my dad was 3 years old — the year he entered the state hospital.

May is Mental Health Month, which was started by Mental Health America in 1949. The theme this year is “Mind Your Health,” to emphasize the important role of social relationships, diet, rest and exercise in protecting and improving mental health and building resiliency. 

These days you can talk publicly or post on social media about almost any affliction — cancer, autism, even Alzheimer’s disease — and you can easily find a sympathetic ear and a fellow traveler. But when it comes to serious mental illness such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), people feel far less able to be open.

Mental illness affects people of every age, race, religion and income. In 2012, the National Institute of Mental Illness estimated that 9.6 million adults ages 18 or older in the United States had a serious mental illness, representing 4.1 percent of all adults in the U.S. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 13 to 20 percent of children living in the U.S. (up to one in five children) experience a mental disorder in a given year, and an estimated $247 billion is spent each year on childhood mental disorders. 

Some Jews may be at higher risk than the general population. As recently reported in Haaretz, new research by Israeli and American scientists uncovered a gene among Ashkenazi Jews that increases the chances of developing the mental disorder schizophrenia, as well as schizoaffective disorder and manic depression. 

Given these numbers and genetic predisposition, why is there still such a high level of stigma within the Jewish community surrounding these disorders? Is that invisible wall of stigma preventing us from providing social support to those in our community who may need it the most?

Dr. Abraham Havivi, an adult and child psychiatrist and also an ordained rabbi, said,  “Even though we know logically that mental illness means that something is wrong with part of your brain, and your brain is just another part of your body, we somehow feel differently about it” than we feel about other physical ailments, for example heart disease or diabetes. He added that because we equate our brains with our minds, and our minds are such a core part of our sense of self, we take it more personally when a mental problem arises.

The good news is that serious mental illness (SMI) can be treated, yet in 2008 just more than half (58.7 percent) of adults in the U.S. with a serious mental illness received treatment for a mental health problem. Treatment rates for SMI differed across age groups, and the most common types of treatment were outpatient services and prescription medication. But you can’t get treated if you don’t see a mental health professional first. 

Havivi said that, in his opinion, most rabbis do a good job of referring congregants to mental health professionals when needed while also offering spiritual support, such as conferring a misheberach blessing (traditional Hebrew prayer for one who is ill). Whether congregants are willing to share their mental health issues is another barrier, but even that can disappear if understanding and sympathy replace the invisible mark of shame attached to these conditions.

For families actively affiliated with synagogues and other Jewish organizations, serious mental illness still can be very isolating. A mother of a 25-year-old adult child with mood disorders and high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome told me, “While there are now many Jewish special needs programs for younger kids in Los Angeles, there’s almost nothing for Jewish young adults with social differences.” She suggested that a special section of JDate or a dedicated Moishe House (for young Jewish professionals) would be very helpful in connecting young Jewish adults with similar challenges.

From all accounts, my grandfather was very intelligent and a gifted educator, a human link between the old family ties in Europe and the new hopes they had for the U.S. Yet his very existence was denied, even by his own family, until his death. It’s time to let go of that stigma.

If you or a loved one needs help with mental illness, Jewish Family Service is a great place to start, and the first step is to call its toll-free central intake at (877) 275-4537. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grass-roots mental health organization and offers a wide range of educational, support and advocacy services. There are affiliate groups in the San Fernando Valley, Westside and the South Bay. For more information, visit