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The Illness You Will Not See

By writing this anonymously, I am perpetuating the very same stigma about which I write. Yet I promised my family. This is not my secret to share, nor my story to tell. As much as I am a part of this story, it is not mine, and I hope you will forgive my hiding behind a pseudonym. 

I am the person sitting next to you in shul. I am the person waiting behind you in line at Gourmet Glatt. I am the person who went to seminary with your sister’s best friend’s cousin, and had a chavrusa (Torah study partner) with your camp friend’s roommate. In some ways, using a pseudonym allows you to know me better. Because I am not just one person. I am all those who have an immediate family member suffering from mental illness in the Orthodox community. And there are many more of us than you might imagine. For most of us, our membership in the Mentally Ill Family Members Club is a mark of shame we do not share. We do not talk about it. We suffer in silence, watching as our loved ones fight their demons. 

Sometimes, in the wake of a tragedy tied to mental illness, a family member will show incredible bravery and speak out. More often, they remain silent, unwilling to face the judgment that comes with admitting their loved one had a mental illness. Most of us do the same. “Must be the parents – I always knew there was something funny about her.” “Well maybe they shouldn’t have given him so much freedom.” “Maybe they shouldn’t have been so strict with her!” “That could never happen to us.”  “She just needs a little tough love.” The smug thought that your offspring, your siblings, your family, is immune to “those kinds of problems.” 

It’s been said hundreds – maybe thousands – of times, but I’ll mention it just once more. If our family members suffered from a “traditional” physical illness, there would be no smugness. No snide comments. If our family members had cancer or MS or any other long-term,debilitating disease, people would be lining up to help. Our community has many challenges, but bikur cholim (caring for the sick) is not one of them. Our community rises to the challenge. Someone gets sick, they’ve got meals prepared for the next decade. Someone’s in the hospital, they’ve got visitors every day – including Shabbos and yuntif (holidays) – to make sure the family members get a break. Someone is home, bedridden and depressed, they’ve got people coming at all hours to visit them. But when someone has a mental illness, all those people seem to disappear. No one is lining up around the block. No one’s offering meals, a friendly face, or an afternoon visit to allow us respite. 

Our rabbis aren’t trained in mental health counseling. They aren’t talking about it from the pulpit. They aren’t raising awareness or educating their congregants on this issue. Our communal leadership – those people lauding the virtuosity of bikur cholim – they’re simply not doing enough. 

What can they do? First, let’s have an open conversation. Let’s have some Orthodox rabbis speaking openly about mental illness. Let’s encourage those who are suffering – both the mentally ill and their families – to ask for help. And let’s make sure that when they do reach out for help, they feel comfortable doing so. No one should be afraid to ask for help because it might hurt their unmarried children’s shidduch (matchmaking) prospects. 

Second, let’s host some community-wide programs. Sensitivity training, for one. Understanding mental health. Inclusiveness in communal spaces. The role of faith-based communities in healing. 

Third, and most importantly, we must decide as a community to embrace all those in need. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard. We must acknowledge our shortcomings, and recognize that bikur cholim has for too long been focused solely on “traditional” biological illnesses. People in our community are suffering, and we need to step up and do something about it. I know it, because I am one of them.

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