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A Rabbi’s Message on Mental Illness


The past two days are two of three holiest days of the Jewish calendar. It was Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah. Jews across the globe get together to pray, reflect and begin the 10 days of introspection and prayers that culminate in the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement. It is when, it says that at the end of the fast, the gates of heavens close and your fate is sealed by the Lord for the coming year. During the 10 days we can, through “repentance, prayer and charity,” help cancel the stern degree of your fate for the coming year.

This year I spent it with my sisters in Sacramento, Calif., and their families, attending my oldest sister’s synagogue that I hadn’t visited in a while. It was good to see familiar faces (many of us a little older, a few more wrinkles, and some look fit and well, while others with some signs that may show that past year was a little harder than one would have hoped for.) But we all give thanks for being there and hope the coming year will bring us health, happiness and the ability to do good for all.

The Rabbi’s speeches over the years somehow always catch me by surprise. But this year, it was even more than I expected. I might add, I was struggling with whether I should have gone to Sacramento, with all the Congressional activity and the latest “repeal and replace” health care bill coming before the Senate. In the end I decided I would go, as we have great Government Relations, Policy, and Communications teams that are working closely together, and could cover the bases, and they knew how to get hold of me if they needed my immediate input.

The Rabbi started out saying, how good it was to see all the faces of the generations of members, and said he would like an indulgence this year by not doing his sermon and having someone else do it on his behalf. He continued that his wife’s sister recently died, a wonderful woman, who in her early 20s developed paranoid schizophrenia, and now 30-plus years, recently died. As a Rabbi, he had counseled many of his congregants who had a mental illness from depression, to PTSD, to anxiety to bipolar disorder, and it always was “under the radar” where people did not want others to know. So, the question in his mind became, “why are we hiding it?” Breast cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and HIV/AIDs were now openly spoken about and the persons gained support by being able to talk about it. Why does that not apply to mental illness? STIGMA and DISCRIMINATION!!!” he bellowed out as preachers often do to make a point. “It needs to change and should start here today in this Synagogue.”

So, on this opening holy day, he handed over his pulpit to someone who has a story to tell of his mental illness. David Bartley, a distinguished gentleman in his early 50s, stood up, tall, assured as he strode to the podium, and then recited a story many of us psychiatrists and mental health providers have heard before. Of his life living with his mental illness, from his deep depression, to almost culminating in his suicide off a bridge, but didn’t because there was a phone box right where he stood. There he saw the stenciled letters on the box saying ‘you are not alone, pick up this phone, and call to talk to someone who understands how you are feeling’.

He is alive today thanks to that phone box. He thanked all those who treat and counsel people with mental illness, and helped him return to his family that day. He then goes on to say that he is now able to come out of the shadows to talk about his mental illness, through NAMI California, to help others dispel the stigma and discrimination of mental illness. On the anniversary of his “almost suicide,” he returns to that spot to remember that because there was a person who cared at the end of the telephone line, he is alive, well, and able to give back to his community and family. He urged all those in the congregation to stop hiding their mental distress and illness, as well as maybe hiding or ignoring their familial issues with mental illness, and like the other illness, make it acceptable to talk about it and ensure we get the treatment we all need and deserve.

At the back of the flier that was on the table when we came in, there was information of a new monthly group this synagogue will now hold for those living with mental illness or their family member or friends, in this synagogues community. It ended with a prayer I wanted to share with you as well.

A Prayer of Healing for Mental Illness.

May the One who blessed our ancestors bless all those who live with mental illness, their caregivers, families and friends;

May they walk in the footsteps of Jacob, King Saul, Miriam, Hannah and Naomi who struggled with dark moods, hopelessness, isolation, and terrors, but survived and led our people……

May they not be alone on this path but be accompanied by their families, friends, caregivers, ancestors and the divine presence.

Surround them with loving-kindness, grace and companionship and spread over them a Sukkot Shalom, a shelter of peace and wholeness.

And let us say AMEN.

My sister urged me to go and speak with him after he left the podium. It took me 20 minutes to chat with him, as so many were going up to him, to say thank you and tell their mental illness story or their family’s history. When they had finished, I went and introduced myself to him. I handed him my APA card, he looks at it and says “Dr. Levin, thank you for coming up, I know your name and your organization. It has been so helpful to me and many, we use your “faith-based Book” as a way to help all who enter for help.

I left feeling both proud and committed to the fight we all are doing at the APA with our District Branches other partners like NAMI, Mental Health America, and all the other mental health organizations for fighting for parity, access to care, and above all to stamp out stigma and discrimination. We are NOT ALONE, OUR PATIENTS ARE WITH US, AND ARE FIGHTING EACH DAY TO LIVE AND SUCCEED IN GETTING BETTER.

We at the APA, you our leaders, members, staff are fighting for the right of health care for patients, and we will not stop to ensure care for all who have a mental illness and substance use disorder.


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