What we cannot see – responding to the mental health crisis

Posted on September 18, 2023

A few months ago I learned 3 important lessons … from a wheelbarrow.

  1. Hire someone or find a friend to help you when spreading a mountain of mulch.
  2. A cracked rib is really painful.

And 3. Always listen to your wife.

I had plans of spreading this mountain of mulch on my own, and over the three weeks it took me to get started my wife very wisely kept suggesting, and suggesting, that I should get some help. She was right and I did not listen. When I finally got started, the wheelbarrow and I had a disagreement. I had anticipated that it would continue moving forward when I was pushing it, while it had decided to stop abruptly, stuck on the concrete. I kept going and it stopped. One visit to urgent care later and I learned that as well as being really painful there is no treatment for a cracked rib; you take the pain medication as needed and you let it heal.

Thankfully I am now fully healed physically, but I am still reflecting on that experience. A cracked rib is a physical injury that no one else can see – there’s no cast, no external signs of the wound – it is an unseen physical ailment. And it is a condition for which there is no actual treatment, there was nothing that I could do to speed up my recovery, I had to just let nature take its course.

How many of us are walking around dealing with issues, challenges, ailments that are unseen?

What stresses, fractures, strains, and breaks are we carrying in our minds, bodies, and souls that no one else is aware of?

And for those things we are experiencing what can be treated, what just takes time, and what has no actual cure?

We are currently facing a mental health crisis. It is largely unseen, it is carried in silence, and yet there are treatments available.  The statistics are truly staggering. In 2021, 1 in 5 American adults had an experience of mental illness, and among young people, aged 6-17, 17% experienced a mental health disorder.[1] When the White House announced plans to tackle the crisis they noted that: “two in five American adults reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression and forty-four percent of high school students reported struggling with persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”[2] These numbers are shocking enough, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, because studies also show that “the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years.”[3] How many people are suffering in silence? How many cases are unaccounted for? How many people are struggling alone?

The stigma of talking about our mental health means that too many of us are suffering in silence. According to the American Psychiatric Association people avoid seeking treatment due to fears of being treated differently or losing their job.[4] This is a problem that affects 40% of the population, but we’re not really talking about it. Individuals and families dealing with mental health challenges feel like they’re the only ones. The perception persists because we aren’t talking about it enough, and then that exacerbates the sense of loneliness – so the silence grows and the problem spreads.

It was easy to stand up here and tell you about the unseen challenges of my broken rib, it is much harder to stand up here and tell you about the unseen challenges in my head. The things that make me anxious to an unhealthy degree, the thoughts that will keep me up at night, the feelings of loss I know I haven’t fully dealt with or processed.

[Blow the shofar]

An ordinary shofar, but also a very special shofar. What none of you can see or know is that there is a small hole right here by the mouthpiece. To successfully blow this shofar you have to hold your finger above it and create a seal. If your finger is not positioned correctly it will not work. At some point I realized this “trick” to be able to use this shofar.

To varying degrees we are all this shofar. There are pieces of us that no one else can see and possibly a piece that no one else might know about for which we have devised a way to “compensate” so that we can function out there in the world. The hole in our lives may be the loss of a loved one that we continue to carry long after the person themselves died. The hole may be a condition for which we receive treatment and care, but of which friends and family are unaware. The hole may be a mental health challenge that we or someone we love is dealing with, and something we never talk about in public. And we all generally learn the trick of where to position our finger so that the hole is concealed and no one need ever know about it.

For better and sometimes for worse humans are probably the most adaptable species on this planet.[5] Overwhelmingly our adaptability is a positive trait that has allowed us to flourish as a species despite a variety of challenging environments and conditions. But there is another side: our adaptability allows us to conceal things that would be better served being out in the open and our adaptability means that we are able to tolerate conditions and situations which should be challenged. In his book “The Myth of Normal,” physician Gabor Mate considers the ways in which we have accepted a toxic culture that leads to mental illness. As he writes: “we have become accustomed – or perhaps better to say acculturated – to so much of what plagues us. It has become for lack of a better word, normal.”[6]

Two years ago, I stood up here and talked about our brokenness as we emerged from Covid. I no longer think that we are broken; we are beautifully flawed and vulnerable humans, created in the Divine image. But we are living and existing in a society that is broken. 40% of us are experiencing anxiety and depression, 44% of our teens have persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness – that’s a broken system. We’ve adapted to this “normal,” when really we should have been challenging it.

Judaism has always been an immensely adaptable religion. We adapted to survive as a Diaspora people, we adapted to survive despite the destruction of the First and Second Temples, we adapted to survive through countless exiles which forced us to start afresh in a new place. But there is a limit to our adaptability, because while Judaism has adapted to face new circumstances, it has never adapted to accept a broken society. When the world is broken we do not change, we seek to change the world. We do not accept the brokenness, instead we seek to repair that which is broken.

Tikkun Olam – the repair of the world is a central idea within our Reform Judaism. From the very beginning the world was broken, imperfect, and flawed – and from the very beginning we have possessed the power to change the world for the better and repair God’s Creation. Tikkun Olam is a clarion call not to adapt to brokenness, but to fix it.

A mental health crisis of global proportions may seem like a challenge that is beyond us – but that has never stopped us before. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of Mussar, famously shared:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”[7]

And so we don’t begin by trying to change the world, we begin by working on ourselves and hope that the impact will emanate from us.

While it is unclear when the mental health crisis actually began, it is clear that a significant contributing factor has been the breakdown of social structures that previously connected and united us. Many of the villages that once supported us and our families no longer exist. And the lives that we now live are more solitary and disconnected than ever before. Over 20 years ago Robert Putnam wrote the book: “Bowling Alone” in which he charted the decline of social connection since the 1950s. I don’t know that he could have anticipated the mental health crisis we are now experiencing, but he recognized that the breakdown in community and social connection would have far-reaching consequences.

The good news is that everyone who is here today has taken a first, positive step in addressing the crisis. In our modern world, the synagogue may be considered a counter-cultural institution because it focuses on communal connection at a time when society is fragmented and individualized. The synagogue is one of the few villages which has survived the recent of loss of social connection and offers a place where we can come together to support one another and build relationships.

As many of you know, Micol and I live thousands of miles from our families, our familial village is spread across countries and continents – but we have a community in this synagogue. A few Fridays ago, when our son Benny arrived for services, he didn’t take a seat. Instead, he began walking around the sanctuary, and I got ready to give him a look from the bimah, you all know the one. But within a moment, I realized that the reason he was moving around the space was so that he could embrace several people he had not seen during the summer months. Benny moved around the congregation hugging the people that he likes to refer to as his honorary aunts, uncles, and cousins. I don’t know what challenges he will face as he grows up, but I know that in this place he has a community in which he feels a sense of belonging, where he knows that he is loved, and where he has a village that will nurture and protect him. And I know that this is the way that many of our children and adults feel about TST.  Studies have shown how important that type of support structure and community can be in promoting good mental health.

Being here today is a positive first step, and imagine how close you might feel to our community with each additional service, holiday, class, social action, and social event you attend– making this place your home and village for the full 365 days of the year.

And then in this community, where people feel safe, valued, respected, and nurtured we need to find ways to encourage people to talk. The silence which accompanies the mental health crisis is feeding it and exacerbating it – we need to break the silence and start talking about what is really affecting us. There is a model out there for how to do this and once again it is our children. If you get to be the fly on the wall when a group of teenagers are talking together, you will hear talk about their mental health, diagnoses, and challenges in a way which is completely foreign to us as adults. They have recognized the importance of being open about what they are experiencing, and we need to follow their example.

To this end, we are going to be increasing the work of our Mental Health Initiative in the synagogue. They have already scheduled a four-part Friday night dinner series focusing on depression, grief, substance abuse, and anxiety. These gatherings will be an opportunity to build connections and community, to support one another, and to break the stigma around discussing our mental health. And we, together with Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, will also be hosting Dr. Betsy Stone as a scholar-in-residence to establish a group for the parents of High School and College age students, to support them in parenting through this difficult stage, allowing them to have a safe space to discuss the mental health challenges that they and their children are facing. And this is just the beginning.

When I broke my rib there was no treatment available. One of the tragedies of the mental health crisis is that for many of the conditions there are actually therapists and treatments to help. A delay of 11 years from symptoms to treatment is too long to wait. On our website we have a Mental Health Resource Guide to help you and your family find therapists, treatment, and support. We as your Clergy are here to listen. We cannot provide ongoing therapeutic care, but we can provide spiritual support and we can help with referrals and accessing resources that are available.

[Blow the shofar]

The shofar’s role is to break the silence and call us to action. It is an alarm that is intended to awaken us from our slumber and to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to what is happening around us. It is a siren call that there is work to be done, a world to be repaired. On this Rosh Hashanah, this shofar in particular calls us to recognize that our society is broken and that there is a mental health crisis that must be addressed. By breaking the silence and removing the stigma around discussing our mental health challenges, by reengaging with community as a place of connection, nurture, and support, and by seeking treatment – we can begin to tackle the crisis here in MetroWest. And by starting first with ourselves, we will then change our community, and eventually, together, we may ultimately change the world.

[1] These statistics come from the National Alliance on Mental Illness – https://www.nami.org/mhstats

[2] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/05/18/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-announces-new-actions-to-tackle-nations-mental-health-crisis/

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination

[5] Two articles on this are: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/humans-may-be-most-adaptive-species/ and https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12344547

[6] The Myth of Normal, Gabor Mate, p.6.

[7] This version of Rabbi Salanter’s words are taken from: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/11462