Editorial: Rethinking How You Volunteer

What is your time worth to you? I ask because it is my unfortunate position to be the one to inform many of you that you are getting about ten cents on the dollar for your time. I am speaking to those of you who in looking to be a difference maker got involved with organizations like Yachad or NCSY or Sharsheret or Bnei Akiva or many similar popular organizations for Jewish youth to volunteer. Not to worry, if you got involved looking to meet new people, have a good time, boost your Shidduch (dating) resume, or pass the “I’m a good person test”, then you are in perfect shape. However, those of you who are hoping to be a difference maker – to change the world for the better – I believe should rethink how you’re spending your time.


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Where You’re Not Needed

The above organizations – the causes – are important and absolutely necessary. However, they don’t need you as a volunteer. This is the case for two reasons:


Firstly, they have an enormous supply of willing volunteers. As talented as you may be at bringing someone closer to Judaism, if you stopped being an NCSY Advisor today, someone would take your place tomorrow. Don’t be mistaken, NCSY volunteers do important work and those who are in it for the right reasons should be unreservedly applauded. But when compared to the fight for mental illness equality, NCSY has an embarrassment of riches of volunteers. Put it this way: If given the choice, would you save a life that your neighbor would be there to save if you did not or would you save a life which would be lost unless you stepped up?


Secondly, the key work has already been done with the above organizations. Take developmental disabilities education, for example. Thank God, just about everyone gets what it means to have autism. There was a time when this was not the case. Many thought it a badge of weakness and a stain upon a family to have a kid on the spectrum. Some parents would hide this information for fear of it affecting their other kids’ marriage prospects. Some were just ignorant of what a developmental disorder was and tried to “treat” their child for being “crazy”. That was wholly disgusting. We are not, however, in that time anymore. The heavy lifting for developmental disabilities awareness has been taken care of. Mental illness equality and awareness, however, is much closer to a societal understanding befitting the stone ages than appropriate for 2019.



Leaving Your Mark

Imagine being that person who spearheaded the breakthrough and enabled women facing breast cancer to get the support they deserve? Being this person might just mean you save lives. Well, you will never be that person. Rochelle Shoretz (may her memory be a blessing) already inspirationally began the powerhouse organization Sharsheret in 2001 while undergoing chemotherapy.


For those looking to leave their mark for a better world, there is an opportunity still available to save lives. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED. Overall, suicide is the second leading cause of death for those age 10-24. (2016 CDC WISQARS)


Be that person. Work to correct the way mental illness is viewed.



Understanding The Fight

There is a thick and unrelenting societal stigma saying that mental illness means weakness, not sickness. It is false, malicious and largely still unchallenged. The stigma causes so many to suffer, scared and alone – adults, teens and little kids alike. Maybe the ten-year-old girl just doesn’t know what is going on with her thinking patterns. Maybe the teenaged guy knows it is likely mental illness but is afraid to be that weak boy, not good enough to get married. Their parents don’t want the stain on their family, leading them to deny something is going on with their kid or take measures to hide the information from others.


Indeed, a prominent Rabbi recently sympathized with my work for mental illness equality, but in the next breath confessed he would not let his daughter date someone who had overcome mental illness. He could not get over his preconceived discriminatory mindset towards the mentally ill.


This approach and general mindset lead the ill to get sicker when they could be utilizing the treatments available. Some never get healthier and achieve their potential; some end up being lost to suicide. Is this the best our community can be?



Do The Right Thing

All of the previously mentioned organizations and causes are important and volunteering for them for the right reasons is a virtue. However, NCSY and Yachad are ultimately backed by the powerful Orthodox Union. (Not to mention that the Orthodox Union, despite their vast resources, has shown just about no appetite for helping Jews with mental illness.) There are many other organizations and causes who have already achieved incredible traction. With mental illness – particularly in the Jewish community – it is literally still possible to be that person who cracks the code to the stigma and ends the mental illness discrimination. With the suicide rate relentlessly rising, this is not hyperbole: You could save countless lives.


Click here to learn more about volunteering for Refuat Hanefesh or email us at info@refuathanefesh.org




Please click here to read Etan Neiman’s other editorials and pieces

Please click here to read other pieces pertaining to mental health



Etan Neiman

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