May is Mental Health Month. It is also a time of counting the omer, the 49 day, 7 week period of self-improvement, between Pesach and Shavuos. Both Mental Health Month and the omer period highlight the importance of treating each other properly and caution that our failure to do so may be fatal.
How We Treat One Another
It is customary during the omer period to study Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), a tractate of the Mishna which teaches us the Torah’s views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. In the omer period, we mourn the death of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva. These students died in a plague because they did not treat one another properly. During Mental Health Month, we mourn the loss of people with mental illness whose condition was worsened by stigma and social distancing and who died by suicide.
For people with mental illness, stigma is one of the biggest barriers to treatment and recovery. Stigma is the disrespectful, unfair, or discriminatory patterns in how we think, feel, talk and behave towards individuals experiencing a mental illness. Stigmatizing and socially distancing ourselves from people with mental illness makes it more difficult for them to admit that they need help. It causes them to feel shame, to be afraid to get health care and to isolate themselves. All of this increases their risk of suicide. In 2016, the nation’s suicide rate was the highest it has been in 30 years. (National Alliance for Mental Health – NAMI) According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 42,773 people died from suicide in 2014, compared with 29,199 in 1999.
Why Should We Do Our Part?
Why should we make an effort to learn more about mental illness and do our part to reduce stigma? Because one in five people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The other four will know someone – a family member, friend, or co-worker who has been affected. This means that every one of us is affected by mental illness in some way, whether by living with an illness ourselves or grappling with its consequences in a friend or loved one.
Bill Clinton said, “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” We all need to examine our beliefs about mental illness. Are our words and actions perpetuating stigma against people with mental illness or are we helping to eliminate it? Some of the things we can do to reduce stigma are: get informed and learn the facts about mental illness, chose our words carefully, focus on the positive, be supportive and accepting. Understand that brain diseases are chronic medical illnesses that respond to safe and effective medications and scientifically demonstrated therapies. If you know someone who appears to be suffering, be compassionate and help them find treatment options.
We Can Learn From Pirkei Avos
Pirkei Avos teaches us so beautifully how to improve our lives. By following the ways set out in Pirkei Avos, we will overcome the stigma attached to mental illness and this will benefit us all. Some of these ways from Pirkei Avos are: love people, do acts of loving-kindness, greet everyone with a smile, be a good friend, do not separate yourself from the community, judge everyone favorably, do not judge another until you have reached their place, do for others as you would like them to do for you. Sounds like a prescription for unity. Just as unity delivered us from Egypt to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, unity is critical to overcome stigma and get us all to a healthier place.
A national public education program combating stigma is Mental Health First Aid. This is an eight-hour live training course which introduces participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems, builds an understanding of their impact and overviews common treatments. To find a Mental Health First Aid training near you go to mentalhealthfirstaid.org. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The number is 1-800-273-8255.
Becoming informed about the facts of mental illness is an important and loving thing that each of us can do for one another.
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