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Musing for Meaning

Killing the Stigma of Mental Illness

Killing the Stigma of Mental Illness

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In the recent past, I learned of two devastating tragedies. One was the suicide of a beautiful young woman: Ivy League graduate, winner of endless awards, prestigious job, and “everything” going for her. The other was the suicide of a close family member of a good friend. The father of three grown children. Both shattering the lives of endless loved ones, friends and acquaintances.

I did not know either of these people, but their loss profoundly hurt me. It hurt me, because every time I hear of a suicide I am instantly reminded of my two close friends who took their lives. Both of whom I had spoken with or seen in the time immediately preceding. Both where I saw nothing, sensed nothing, picked up on nothing and therefore did nothing.

Following a suicide, everyone is looking for a reasonFollowing a suicide, everyone is looking for a reason, an excuse. Everyone wants to find something or someone to blame. Because when we have a label, it makes it so much easier to separate it from our lives or our responsibility. My one friend suffered from bipolar disorder. Therefore, it somehow made sense to people. He was sick. He either didn’t take his meds, or he took the wrong meds, or the doctors messed up.

With my other friend, no one saw it coming. Sure, after the fact you could recognize that he looked down and was stressed, overwhelmed, and whatever else could be blamed. But only after the fact.

Today I was reading comments about this young woman’s recent suicide. The one with the “perfect” life. And it was unbelievable. People actually wrote that they were convinced that there was no way she would have taken her life. After all, she had a great job, she was beautiful, she was moving up in the corporate ladder, she came from a loving and stable home, she had so many friends. You name it, she had it going for her. Not only did people not want to believe she killed herself, they refused to believe she did it. But it seems that being perfect isn’t so easy. And certainly, staying perfect is pretty impossible.

Here is the thing: healthy people do not kill themselves. Just like healthy people don’t die of illness. But looking healthy and being healthy are two very different things. And just like we have an annual physical to make sure that nothing dangerous is lurking behind our fit and “healthy” bodies . . . so too, it is about time we did the same for our mental health.

We keep saying that the stigma surrounding mental illness must be broken. But we have a very long way to go. Like it or not, the reality is that the world is not ready to hear if we are suffering from a psychiatric ailment. We are not posting it to our Facebook status, we are not telling our coworkers, and we are often not even letting our close friends and loved ones know.

And as long as it is a secret, it will keep killing.

We keep saying that the stigma surrounding mental illness must be broken. But we have a very long way to goWhen we were grieving the loss of one of my friends, trying to understand the incomprehensible was the hardest part. In the end, the conclusion was that this mental illness, though undiagnosed and unknown, was similar to finding out that he had a brain tumor. And I truly feel that this is what he had . . . it just was an emotional mass eating away at his mind, not a physical one. And one day, that tumor took over, left no room for anything else . . . and it killed him.

Jewish law forbids the taking of one’s own life. It is considered a grave sin. And yet, in most cases of suicide, the law assumes a suicide victim to have been severely ill, to the point that he or she cannot be held accountable. The understanding is that if these people were healthy, if they were cognizant of the gravity of what taking their lives would mean, they would never have willingly chosen to carry out the horrific act. In cases of impaired mental health, a suicide victim is exactly that. A victim. A victim of a terrible, horrible, devastating illness that needs to be addressed head-on, without embarrassment or reprisals or stigma.

That is the only way we can kill this killer.

If you don’t think you know anyone suffering from a mental illness, think again. You do. We all do. There are people in our lives who are scared, anxious, depressed, and may even be suicidal. They might talk about it, or be too scared to talk about it. But we need to make sure we are offering support not only when it is needed, but even before it is needed. We need to make sure those we love know we are here, without judgment, and that it is okay to have issues, it is okay to feel overwhelmed. The only thing not okay is when one refuses to do something about it.

I look forward to the day when one can post as a Facebook status, “Feeling really depressed and overwhelmed . . . does anyone know a good psychologist or psychiatrist I could see?” the same way we don’t hesitate to write, “Have a terrible sinus infection. Anyone know a good ENT?”

If you don’t think you know anyone suffering from a mental illness, think againMental illness is no one’s fault. It is an illness like cancer, or diabetes, or anything else that we don’t cause and we can’t prevent. But the difference is that we can treat it—yet only if we are able to be open and honest enough to get that diagnosis, and seek the support and help necessary.

It is time we take a stand against mental illness. We can speak about it, educate ourselves and educate others. Please, if you are suffering, reach out. Get help. Make an appointment. If you know someone who is suffering, please let them know you care, offer an ear and hand, and help them get the professional help they need. And if you don’t think this applies to you—trust me, it does.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my friends. With one, I have his picture from our wedding next to my Shabbat candles. And every week, when I light, I think of his loss, and how his flame that brought so much love and light was unnecessarily and prematurely extinguished.

Breaking the stigma won’t take away mental illness. But it will take away the fear associated with getting help and addressing the issues. Nothing I can do will bring back my friends. But the loss of my friends will ensure that I do everything in my power to never lose someone else I know in this way. Please, help your loved ones and do the same.


Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Sara Esther Crispe Danby October 14, 2015

Gary, thank you for your courageous comment. Your empathy towards others because of what you have been through is so important and life changing/saving for those you understand. I pray you are given the support, help and awareness that you need for your own growth and mental health and you should be blessed with only goodness and positivity in your life!

Take Care,

Sara Esther (author) Reply

Gary kleiner Rockland ny October 9, 2015

Mental illness I thank the author for the article. I suffer from major depression and anxiety. I have had 2 suicide attempts. The second one nearly killed me. I had 2young kids at the time. I had care, the 1 st was poor doc and the second was complete exhaustion from depression. I was very sick, now divorced. At the time I didn't think strait, I didn't care at that time about my kids. The illness saps you of your rational thinking. I try to be sensitive to those suffering, no it's not always easy but we are supposed to do good, just because it's right. I believe I have illness to help others. I hope people will become more aware of mental illnesses, first Google illnesses to learn more. If we don't help this problem, the illness spreads.

Bless you all

Gary kleiner Reply

Yocheved Ohio January 3, 2013

networking I really like this article I have a family member who has been struggling for five years w mental illness. Thank G-d we have now gotten to a place where he is on good meds and its really helping, after many times being close to hopeless and many hospitalizations.

I want to say there is help but we are still climbing the ladder . It is a climb.

I would like to see an ongoing support group in our communities a forum that people can help and support each other. Reply

Fran Toronto, Canada December 27, 2012

Turning to prayer... I have been diagnosed with GAD and Depression for a while now, and i was going through a particularly rough time in university. I didn't feel safe (that I wouldn't harm myself) and felt that I shouldn't leave my bed. The only thing that helped me through it was opening my siddur and praying. Knowing that I am connected and part of a larger community/group. (This is not to say that I didn't have a loving support system around me, but that I didn't feel I could reach out to them at the time. The only thing I felt could help me, that enveloped me, was Hashem).
Also, unfortunately, too many of my friends and I suffer from mental illnesses. We are in our 20s and are starting to speak to each other about it-making it less of a stigma, but only between us... Reply

Anonymous December 8, 2012

Excellent article I salute you for your honesty and integrity in writing about this serious physical illness that manifests itself mentally. You are to be commended for this article. Reply

Even Pretoria November 29, 2012

I really enjoyed your article, its so refreshing to read that there are people who are attuned to others plight. When I realised that a friend I was staying with was not sleeping talking a lot looked exhausted and yet could not sleep, I did not need the DSM IV.Clearly he was suffering, when asked if he had taken his meds he replied no. That did it! Action or they WILL hurt themselves, you cannot dance around a person in the manic stage of BP, they love that feeling, they are irrational, the police was called he was restrained and taken in for treatment.Had that not happened I do not think I'd have a friend. It does not end there, I needed to get help, it was very traumatic to see a friend restrained and injected with sleeping medication, hurling abusive bable at you, they simply are not aware at this stage of what they are doing, to not take it personaly is a tough one, there is no easy answer, therapy helps put things into perspective! Saving a life not an option for me, prayer a must Reply

Anonymous November 13, 2012

Amen and thanks As I was looking on Chabad.org for Maamar "Heichaltzu: On Ahavas Yisrael," my eyes spotted the title of this article.

And, besheret, your topic is actually WHY I was searching for Heichaltzu in the first place. About an hour ago, my rabbi and I were just discussing, mamash, "the stigma of mental health!"

He recommended the discourse, I recommended a site geared towards men (the LEAST likely of us to reach out for help).

Also, we both agreed that having a counselor/therapist was like having a mashpia/mentor and yichud... very healthy/important for EVERYONE, not just for heads of state, eg.

We ALL need guidance - and not just during tough times. Advisement can also be helpful during times when we are strong - learning more on how we can best assist others and be effective with our resources, for example.

Thanks for your words and efforts towards wellness... Keep talkin'! Reply

Anonymous November 11, 2012

Answer to does help exist. I agree that it seems a dificult path. Yet is well known not enough vitamin B12 can provoke depresion, if our cells are not able to take the quantity of oxygen needed to our brains, a problem with our neuronal system, they are posible reasons why a person seems to suffer from "mental problems". Illnes like porphyria where the blood does not produce all the time the right elements for us to work normal, can provoke "mental illness". The solution are not the psychiatric drugs in every case, they should only be used in extremy circumstances they produce the same damage that the ones used on the street there is not diference in relation to the side effects It is not easy, from checking food intake, kind of food, check for allergies, sleeping enough and well and to be able to speak freely are all factors that can help of how a person can find a possible solution. Enviormental factors liket exposition to electromagnetic camps in our own homes can affect sleeping, the same that asthma in othe Reply

Alice Sarasota November 11, 2012

use the Torah, see a physician, and try therapy On Nov. 4, J. Kanat offered excellent advice about stabilizing one's life if you have symptoms of depression or anxiety,or some other mental disorder, but I hope her advice was limited by space and time. My advice and hopes for sufferers of mental "disorders" comes from experience in the medical field AND from a lifetime of suffering from bipolar disease (even as a child). My advice also comes from the heart. I have turned to my Jewish faith and traditions whenever I was capable. (BE reassured, Jewish doubters, we are given permission (in fact, commanded)to use the services of a physician. This is written in the Torah, Talmud, and expounded on by our sages, and revered teachers. Kanat recommends a quiet environment, good nutrition, and the removal of negative influences. I agree; all of these are essential to obtaining wellness and staying well, but we need to be in a state of healthy "mental readiness" to start this process, which, I call "high therapy"(con't, please) Reply

Anonymous NJ November 9, 2012

Thank you for writing this article. The world needs an awakening to mental health! I have close family members dealing with these issues. Reply

Anonymous NY, usa via chabadillinois.com November 6, 2012

Does help really exist? 2 family members with real mental illness and they both say they are not sick and don't need any help. One has been in and out of hospitals in the last year, tried many different meds, and pychiatric help and recommended pyschiatrists and NO PROGRESS. Is there real help for these people? Reply

Jolie Kanat Novato, CA via jewishnovato.com November 4, 2012

Instability, The Mind and the Spirit Dealing with personality instability is like having a tiger by the tail. It is unpredictable, heartbreaking and very difficult.

But something can be done to help.

One approach is a calm environment, enough rest, healthy food and vitamins, low stress, no confusing "treatments" and recognizing and removing oneself from those who are harming one emotionally, spiritually or physically. People cannot do well or recover around those who are crushing them, no matter how "indispensable " the "friend" may seem. If you have a loved one who is experiencing instability, help them remove themselves from this kind of harmful person or people.

Also, it is important to take care with the drugs prescribed. All of them, without exception, have suicidal tendency warnings. Also withdrawal from the drugs can cause worse symptoms that the ones they were prescribed to mitigate.

Always withdraw very slowly and under a doctor's care.

People can recover and have done so.

There is lots of hope. Reply

Anonymous November 4, 2012

Having recently been diagnosed BP, I really appreciated this article, I too look forward to the day I can turn round to my friends and say "yeah, i'm depressed" without worrying about being considered enigmatic to the rest of our society. Reply

Anonymous November 4, 2012

I think there are suicides that come from situations not necessarily from mental problems. The person is not in a good place in life from their persoective and despairs of things getting better. Sometimes the cause is despair. And/or feeling unneeded. Feeling no connection to others. Reply

Anonymous November 3, 2012

Thanks for speaking up I was diagnosed with depression and biblpolar in 1996. Not knowing my rights I leaked the information out to my supervisors: they needed to know why I was taking so many days off work. From then on, I noticed that although I was efficient in my job duties or even more efficient than my peers, I began to get treated " differently". And when I came out to coworkers they just ridiculed me and called me crazy. The stigma hung over me all of my career;I had to fight for promotions ect . Gradually I begin to incorporate their beliefs to my very own. I felt because of my disease that I am not valuable or worthy of anything good in life. In 2009, after a lot of hardship that came my way, I was forced to resign and subsequently file for disability. I still feel like i will be judged so I don't share this issue with anyone from fear that again I will be ostracized and rejected. But oh how I want to sound a trumpet and spread the truth about this disease. It is my duty to let others know. Reply

Sara Esther Crispe November 3, 2012

To Johnny Thank you for your comment. You are right: abuse or neglect or trauma can lead to depression, anxiety or other mental illness. So to clarify, someone who causes this abuse is responsible for creating a situation that leads to this in the victim, but the victim is not responsible for it happening. It is not the fault of the victim if he or she suffers from post traumatic stress or another disorder as a result of suffering. I hope that clarifies! Reply

Anonymous ny November 3, 2012

true everything you say here is so true. illness of the mind should be regarded and treated in the same way as bodily illnesses. You try everything you can to get better, don't ignore it. Reply

Anonymous New York November 3, 2012

Stigma of Mental Illness This is one of the few times I have read really explaining mental illness as equivalent to a physical illness in terms that a layman can understand. An excellent job. I have spoken in groups of emotionally ill people and they are afraid to stand up for themselves for fear of being stigmatized. Hopefully, in the ner future, we will be able to change peoples' perceptions of this illness, so that thee be no fear of acknowledgement. Reply

Dave Mumm Mercer Island, Wa. via chabadbellevue.org November 2, 2012

Mental Illness I was disabled with depressionfor ten years and I was able to make a substantial recovery because of good therapy and because of a very powerful spiritual awakening. I now work as a Peer Counselor at a local mental health agency.
My practice is very spirtiual and joyful as well as halakhic.
Depression always says the same thing: Sleep, Isolate,Be Sad. Both my therapy and Judaism say "Do it anyway!". Do what is healthy whether or not you want to. Reply

Johnny LA November 2, 2012

Question Mental illness caused by abuse or violence: "Mental illness is no one’s fault. ". Reply

Every situation we find ourselves in is a lesson waiting to be learned. That is what this blog is about. From the people I meet, the places I go and the experiences I have, stories emerge, each teaching me something that I hope you will find useful for your life as well.
Sara Esther CrispeSara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a non-profit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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