Rabbi to discuss community’s response to mental illness

Rabbi Sandra Cohen

As many as one in four people will suffer from mental illness throughout the course of their lives, and its impact can be devastating.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen, of Denver, has lived that story and now says that Jewish communities have to do more to help their members recover.

She is bringing that message to a scholar-in-residence weekend at Solel Congregation in Mississauga, Ont., this month, where she will argue that doing more to help those suffering is a religious duty.

Mental illness, she added, is not unique to the Jewish community, but it does have a slightly different character.

That statement is backed up by a 1992 study, which showed that the overall lifetime rate of psychiatric disorders among Jews did not differ from that of the general population, although some specific disorders showed up at higher rates among Jews. Those included significantly higher rates of major depression and dysthymia, but lower rates of alcohol abuse. Jews were also more likely than Catholics or Protestants to seek treatment with mental health specialists and general practitioners.

“I don’t know that we have good statistics to argue that we’re more crazy than other people, although if you talk to people who are working in the congregational rabbinate, they might off the record want to argue that,” she quipped in an interview with The CJN.

“We do know that 20 to 25 per cent of adults will report having a serious mental health issue over the course of their lifetime and it’s even higher for our kids these days.”

Rabbi Cohen’s knowledge of mental illness and its effects comes from more than just study. She suffered a serious stroke 17 years ago that forced her to retire from congregational work and left her in a deep depression. That was on top of a history of mental health issues in her family.

“The stroke affected my mental health, as well as my physical health,” she said. “Maybe it was God’s way of using me to help others by telling my story today. The Jewish people are a people of stories and my story belongs here, too.”

She said that Jewish communities can help those struggling with such issues by being open and welcoming.

“What happens in the Jewish community is that many of us, because we’re afraid of stigma, might not talk to people, so we end up as individuals experiencing our illness, or that of a family member, alone, and we don’t know how to turn to the person sitting next to us in shul and discover that they’re having the same problem themselves,” said Rabbi Cohen.

“It’s an invisible issue that we’re afraid to talk about and that, in and of itself, worsens the issue,” she added. “We have to learn to help as a community and how we can be there for each other.”

The kind of actions she promotes are rooted in Jewish scripture. Abraham and Sarah are lauded in the Torah for welcoming strangers, and a central tenant of the faith is the admonition to visit the sick. The Talmud adds that an incompetent person is not required to bring harvest offerings “and that includes people we now recognize as mentally ill,” she said.

As a concrete example, Rabbi Cohen said that in her home congregation in Denver, there is a ladies room with large signs saying that Jewish women are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer and should get tested.

“Mental illness needs the same kind of consideration,” she argued. “We need to tell people we know about mental illness in our congregation, we’re not scared of that and you are welcome here.…

“We are required to visit the sick and we do that today with people who have diseases that used to be unmentionable, like cancer. Why can’t we do that with people suffering mental illness? They also need help with laundry and meals, rides to shul and someone to sit with them. It’s about who we are and our basic values and reaching out in ways that we haven’t thought about.”

In addition, when rabbis and their congregations recite the prayer for the sick at weekly services, they can make it clear that the prayer includes those afflicted with all illnesses, she said.

While the Jewish community can still improve the way it responds to mental illness, there have been changes over the years. Suicide, for example, was once seen by the community as an act of personal free will. Today, it is understood to be the result of an illness over which the sufferer may have no control.


Rabbi Cohen will make three presentations at Solel Congregation (2399 Folkway Dr.) from Oct. 25-27.