Jewish Perspectives on Mental Health
The Canadian Mental Health Association states that one in five Canadians is impacted by mental illness each year. With Canada’s estimated 392,000 Jewish people comprising about 1% of the population, many Jewish individuals will also face mental health challenges. Religions haven’t always handled mental illness with compassion and kindness, but how do modern Jewish Canadians deal with such challenges? Answering this question requires an overall look at mental health in Canada and Jewish perspectives on the issue from both the past and present.
Mental Health Issues in Canada
Mental health in Canada is a complex picture. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates around 8% of adults will suffer from major depression and 5% with suffer from anxiety disorders. Even direr is the CMHA’s revelation that at least 50% of Canadians will have experienced mental illness by age 40, but nearly half of individuals dealing with anxiety or depression never seek professional help. While these figures are disturbing, they’re due to many factors, including lack of access to care, stigmas surrounding mental illness, and fear of discrimination.
Historical Jewish Perspectives
My Jewish Learning explains that classical Jewish texts encompass a wide range of viewpoints on mental illness. The Tanakh contains several Hebrew words that are often translated as “madness.” One key word from Deuteronomy is “shigaon,” an antecedent for the modern Yiddish term “meshuggeneh” that means “crazy.” This state of mind is framed as divine punishment for failing to heed God’s word. The Talmud discusses concepts such as mental competency in legal contexts, and the word “shoteh” denotes someone who is severely detached from reality.
On the other hand, it’s been suggested figures such as King David, Job, Hannah, and Elijah may have struggled with depression. These individuals are usually depicted in a more compassionate light. Chabad mentions the term “machalat hanefesh,” which refers to mental illness and is translated as “illness of the soul.” While it may not accurately reflect the involvement of the brain and body, this phrase can describe the depths of suffering that people experience.
Fighting Stigmas, Finding Answers
Nearly every religious or cultural community contains negative beliefs about mental illness. Some examples in contemporary English words include “crazy,” “idiot,” or “nutcase.” Dr. Neal A. Lester at Tolerance.org breaks down how these are damaging and ableist, describing the ways in which they can potentially dehumanize people with mental health struggles.
While similar stigmas exist within Jewish communities, there also seems to be a greater overall openness towards mental health challenges and solutions. My Jewish Learning discusses a few studies revealing that Jewish people tended to exhibit more positive attitudes towards counseling, psychotherapy, and other forms of professional mental health assistance. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism published the Reform Movement’s position on mental health, which calls for several objectives in government, synagogues, religious schools, youth programs, and communities to help those with mental health challenges:
- Destigmatizing mental illness
- Training and education
- Greater community support
- Better access to housing and care
- Ensuring fair treatment, safety, and legal rights of mentally ill prisoners
- Ending workplace discrimination
- Increased focus on prevention and treatment
Changes are occurring within Orthodox Jewish communities as well. One key objective is removing harmful stigmas, which can lead to isolation and secrecy. Advocacy groups are taking the lead, such as Relief, which researches providers and offers referrals, and Chazkeinu, offering peer-led support for Jewish women.
Chemlah: Compassion and Mercy
While stigmas surrounding mental illness still remain, many Canadian Jewish communities strive to eliminate them and help those impacted receive the assistance they need. “Chemlah” is a Hebrew word that can reflect compassion in a divine sense, especially towards those who are vulnerable. Such compassion is essential to bring about understanding, support, and healing.