True Chesed for the Mentally Ill and Their Families
I sent a version of this letter out to a local Bet Shemesh, Israel list a year ago. The tragic funerals in the last couple of weeks and the number of people I met at the second funeral who could easily imagine this being their own child’s funeral makes the plea in this letter all the more urgent.
In brief, the greatest barrier to treating mental illness is the stigma involved. Sufferers and their families have difficulty admitting what they are going through (oftentimes, even to themselves) and the community, as a whole, does not want to really know about it. Better to talk about an unruly child or a teen-at-risk (of which there are unfortunately many) than to admit the possibility of a real mental illness. Unfortunately, an illness untreated only gets worse.
On the day of the second funeral, there was a discussion group at a local synagogue for teens and Saturday night, one for parents. These are fantastic and very important initiatives, but if they do not attack the reality and stigma of mental illness head-on they will be missing the point. As the father said at the second funeral and repeatedly at the shiva house, Gila was ill. Her death was a result of that illness. One of greatest weapons in the fight against mental illness is family support for those who are ill and communal support for those families, so that the afflicted families can use their emotional and physical energy to help their loved ones, instead of using it to hide the situation.
When our loved one was first diagnosed with a mental illness, like most people, we kept it quiet. We did not feel that it was anyone’s business nor did we want our loved one or ourselves stigmatized. Over the years we learned that there is a heavy price for silence too: loneliness, broken social engagements that can’t be explained, tardiness and absences at work, a constant sense of looking over your shoulder lest anyone find out.
After six years of silence, we chose to speak out and turn our pain and suffering into an organization that would help others going through similar experiences and help break the stigma: The Israeli NEABPD (National Educational Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder).
I am sure that when you hear that a neighbor is ill, you jump to help them. The Chesed Committee leaps into action. Due to the stigma, families afflicted with mental illness usually don’t share their pain or ask the Chesed Committee for help. If we actively work to reduce the stigma and be more accepting of mental illness, we allow those families afflicted to get the help they so desperately need.
Since founding the Israeli NEABPD, we have been surprised to find that dozens of our neighbors in Bet Shemesh (not too mention friends and acquaintances in Gush Etzion, Yerushalayim, and Modi’in) had been suffering as we were. You almost certainly don’t know it, but your friend down the street— or even next door—may very well be suffering in silence. In fact, just yesterday I found out that two families who live a few doors down from each other had no idea the other one was grappling with the same disorder in their family! Had they only known, how much support could they have given one another!
Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski likes to tell the story of the kallah who came to him and asked whether she should marry a certain young man. He was a great match, but his brother suffered from BiPolar Disorder. Rabbi Twerski wisely responded: “At least you know what he has in his family.” Suffice it to say, mental illness is ubiquitous, and by stigmatizing it we only make the sufferers and their families feel worse and sometimes even avoid treatment.
Professor Rael Strous MD, Head of Psychiatry at Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center and a great friend and neighbor has run for us in the Jerusalem Marathon. He wrote, “as a psychiatrist, I have seen the effects of severe emotional dysregulation and Borderline Personality Disorder on a family. I whole-heartedly support the efforts of the Israeli NEABPD to advocate for the sufferers, educate the general public, and provide education, skills-training, and support to family members of sufferers. I am proud to be running for the NEABPD, Israel in this year’s Jerusalem Marathon!”
Please let this tragic day be a wake-up call, so that those who are suffering in silence can feel safe stepping out of the closet, so they can get the support and help our warm and loving communities offer.
With warmest wishes,
Meshulam and Lisa Gotlieb
Co-Founders NEABPD, Israel