Mental illness has emerged as one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. Only a few short decades ago it was barely spoken of. For years, stigma and a lack of knowledge created social barriers to open discussion about this important issue.
Today, it’s everywhere. It’s spoken about regularly in the news, on television, on social media, at school, at social gatherings and indeed, around the Shabbat table.
And so it should be. Gone are the days when talking about every physical ache and pain in our body eclipsed the desperately needed conversations around conditions such as depression, anxiety and addiction (to name just a few), all of which people have been grappling with for years. Initiatives like “R U OK day”, practised each year on the second Thursday of September, are an opportunity for people to “check in” with their friends and family and enquire about each other’s mental health. It’s designed to normalise the conversation and make it front and centre of our communal discourse. Indeed, this attitudinal change is well overdue.
Internationally, mental health conditions are on the rise. The World Health Organisation has attributed this predominantly to demographic shifts and has reported a 13 per cent rise in mental illness diagnosis and substance use disorders across the globe between 2007 and 2017. More recently, COVID-19 lockdowns, social isolation, and constant media coverage of the pandemic exacerbated this reality.
Here in Australia, we are far from immune. The Australian Psychological Society (APS) has urged the government to intervene and provide more support for Australia’s mental health sector. In the words of APS CEO Dr Zena Burgess, “Psychologists have been warning for a long time that the barriers to care are far too high, and the psychology workforce is simply not supported well enough to meet demand. The effects of the pandemic on the mental health of our nation will continue for years to come. We must invest now to prevent a lost generation and ensure communities across Australia can recover and thrive.”
The Jewish community is a responsible and caring one. We can all take committed action to continue to raise awareness of this important issue through education and the de-stigmatisation of mental illness. Parents can take an active role in having open and honest conversations about mental health with their children. Many Jewish families gather religiously for Shabbat dinners offering a unique opportunity to explore these issues as a family.
Rabbis and communal leaders can upskill through professional development courses. The Rabbinical Council of Victoria has invested significant time and resources in providing professional development courses to its member rabbis in the areas of general counselling, grief counselling, mental health first aid courses and other areas relevant to rabbis’ roles as pastoral carers.
On a personal note, in my capacity as a congregational rabbi, ensuring I have the requisite skills to respond to mental health issues as they arise in my community has always been and remains a central priority. I recognised that to remain effective and be helpful to those I serve, I need to constantly improve in this space. Last month I completed my Masters degree in counselling at Monash University following two years of full-time study. This course has taught me theory and evidenced based counselling practices to build on the basic counselling skills I learned at Monash some 15 years ago when first becoming a rabbi.
At the same time, receiving a university qualification as a counsellor is not the same as becoming a psychologist, who in turn is not the same as a psychiatrist. All mental health care providers must be cognisant of their limitations and refer those in our care to more qualified clinicians when the need arises.
But of course one doesn’t need to be a mental health professional to help those who are struggling with mental illness. We just need to care. And it’s here that the timeless teachings of our faith provide us with clear instructions and moral guidance on the importance of helping those in need. “Love your neighbour as yourself”, perhaps the most widely known commandment in the Torah, instructs us to simply care for others as we’d want them to care for us.
We all have our dark days. For those who don’t suffer with mental illness these days come and go and we quickly spring back to our normal selves. But for those who do experience the challenge of mental illness, dark days can turn into dark weeks or even months, and having a friend or family member reach out and show that they care can be so deeply empowering. It sends a message to those who are vulnerable that they are not alone, that none of us live in a vacuum.
We are all interconnected and when one member of the community is struggling mentally, we all are. It doesn’t take a herculean effort to show that we care. Sometimes all it takes to make a difference is a simple phone call or text message. So let’s all do our part and make that call.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasman is senior rabbi of St Kilda Hebrew Congregation.