Mental Illness in the Orthodox and Chassidic Communities

I have vivid memories from my childhood of a man in a crumpled suit sitting in the kitchen of my synagogue next to my father, the shamus (Rabbi’s assistant), who handed the man a plate of leftovers from the weekly Kiddush. He looked scary to me and I’d heard other members of the shul gently admonish my father for permitting him entrance to the shul. This man came often when he wasn’t institutionalized and was appreciative of my father. The lesson I learned was to respect and treat all people with dignity. This is the Jewish way of life.

Frum (Orthodox) Jewish communities worldwide are vibrant, bustling, and alive with social interaction, purpose of life, contributions to society, and dedication to the continuation of the traditional way of life. Centuries-old charitable organizations abound alongside new organizations that aid people with the current wave of problems: physical disabilities, bullying, cancer, abuse, addictions, children off the derech (strayed from religion), and more. Such organizations were created specifically to operate with sensitivity towards Jewish values and culture. I’ve raised a large family, sent my children to the Jewish Orthodox educational system and summer camps, and have seen these valuable organizations in action.

Silencing Mental Illness

In the last few decades, cases of mental illness have been steadily climbing in the population at large as well as in the Jewish communities, yet many do not seek professional help. The news has been quick to highlight the most extreme cases, instilling fear and distrust in the general public, while ignoring the wide spectrum of mental illness in which many have been helped to lead functional, full lives. In the close-knit Jewish communities, there has been silence on the subject in public forums, and the label of mental illness has been regarded as one to avoid at all costs. Families choose to hush up anything related to mental illness, hoping not to affect opportunities for their families in regard to marriage, jobs, and social status. Mental illness was not given its proper place among the chesed (service) organizations. There were unique reasons underlying the stigma in the Jewish community that stymied the progress of those programs, and many of those reasons still remain, although there has been progress recently.

In the educational system, teachers taught large classes and were preoccupied with keeping the struggling students up to class level. Many were not trained to recognize depression, anxiety, or social withdrawal. They may have reported to parents about troubling behaviors such as hyperactivity, poor peer interaction, or academic woes. But no one connected these behaviors to emotional or mental wellbeing. Even academic tutoring was frowned upon so as not to cast aspersions on the family’s reputation, and parents were opposed to putting their child in a class for underachievers.

Securing Proper Marriage Prospects

Good marriages for the children is what drives many cultural mores. Lineage, commonly known as yichus, plus current family status affects the family in regard to marriage prospects. In the Orthodox and Chassidic communities, marriage prospects are suggested and thoroughly researched by both families. This research includes lineage; educational, economical, and community standing; medical conditions; religious standards; and the status of siblings, among other factors. In the past when symptoms of mental illnesses were considered the result of poor behavioral choices, trauma, or bad parenting, it wasn’t quite as taboo; however, now that science has shown that there are biological genes that can be inherited and passed on, increasing the likelihood of mental illness in offspring, any mental illness connection has been hushed up even more. Bearing and raising children are among the most revered tenets of Judaism and for this reason in the Orthodox community it is widely encouraged, almost mandated, that young couples test for compatibility through the Tay Sachs testing system even before the first date to avoid perpetuating serious illnesses.

Getting Treatment within the Communities

In Orthodox circles the first person they might turn to is their rav/rabbi for advice. In the past, the rav would be reluctant to advise sending someone to a therapist for the sake of the family. Also, a rav would advise against seeing a non-orthodox therapist because of the secular leanings in psychology which could undermine religious dogma. Fortunately, two things have changed for the better: first the proliferation of Orthodox therapists, and more recently the trend to retrain older rabbis to be aware of and to be responsive to the needs of the community concerning abuse and mental illness. The trend is now more in favor of advising people to seek professional help, although not all do. Organizations in the last ten years have sprung up that offer confidential referrals to appropriate frum professionals.

However, getting treatment is not easy in a close-knit neighborhood where one must slip out to appointments unseen and hide taking medications. Also, no one wants to see a religious therapist whom they might encounter in their neighborhood at one of the many social functions. Therefore, appointments must be made outside of their immediate area.

Secrecy and stigma prevent any sharing with or receiving support from friends, coworkers, and even family members. In the last few years, there have emerged the beginnings of secret support groups for frum women, a welcome change.

Changing the Conversation with my Book

Awareness of mental illness in the community is still dangerously dismal, and so I decided to jump-start my newfound writing career with my book, Lemons in the Fog, a book born of necessity, from hearing the silent cries of the members of the Jewish Orthodox community struggling to maintain secrecy while desperately trying to preserve their dignity and health. Fiction is a powerful tool and a well-written novel allows the reader to put aside their own opinions and notions and live the life of the character. I created a 19-year-old yeshiva student to highlight the real-life challenges these anonymous young women and men living among us face daily, fighting an uphill battle. I wanted to open the door to empathy and compassion for those whose souls Hashem has entrusted with this mission.

Through the first person account of my protagonist, I wanted to impart to my readers an understanding of the ways mental illness manifests itself in youth; how one experiences the progress of the disease through the stages of denial, escape, shame, and loneliness; and the path one must take to return to a stable way of living by seeking treatment and support, which can lead to a bright future. I wanted to create awareness of the societal imposed stigma and isolation, and to demonstrate how this impedes recovery and stability. I hope that someone reading my book could recognize mental illness in themselves or in others and could call one of the phone numbers of confidential Jewish Orthodox resources listed in the back of the book.

Another lofty goal I had was to make those with mental illness not feel alone, to reveal that others had traveled this path and that they shared common experiences. I wanted to validate their journeys, to reassure them that someone in the community understands them and cares enough about them to accurately represent their struggles for others to see. 

I wanted to stoke the conversation about the unaddressed stigma in the community, and since the publication of my book eight months ago, I’ve received positive feedback and have been asked to speak and write about the motivations behind the publication of this book. It’s a good sign that people are listening.

Outlook for the Future

I have faith that the Jewish community will step up to support the mentally ill within the framework of camaraderie in the community, following in the footsteps of those unsung heroes who have created kosher therapeutic services and resources. Together we can ensure that all the members of our communities can live side by side with dignity so our society can continue to thrive.

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Chaya Rochel Zimmerman
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