What’s a rabbi’s role in destigmatizing mental illness?

Karen Roe FLICKR

Rabbi Raysh Weiss

Shaar Shalom Congregation, Halifax

Rabbi Debra Landsberg

Temple Emanu-El, Toronto

Rabbi Landsberg: September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day. Mental illnesses afflict many of us and those we love, from young to old.

I think of Winston Churchill’s struggle with his “black dog.” He once admitted: “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”

Although we wish each other a sweet new year, there is so much more we need to do to make that a reality. What can we do in our work to protect people from the ravages of their own “black dogs”?

Rabbi Weiss: According to the World Health Organization, about 20 per cent of world youth suffer mental disorders. Here in Nova Scotia, there were three teen suicides this past year alone in Cape Breton. These tragedies have galvanized local communities to speak more openly about the dangers of bullying and the importance of promoting mental health.

Prozac was introduced to the market 30 years ago; my generation is the first to “grow up” on it. One important responsibility we bear to anyone who relies on Prozac and other similar medication is to carefully monitor their intake of these prescriptions. Even a slight change in regimen can result in tragic consequences.

As rabbis, one of the most important pastoral reminders we can offer mourners who have lost a loved one to suicide is that they are not personally responsible for the death. We have to take mental health seriously and to speak openly about mental health issues in our community.

‘it’s in moments of deep stillness and silence that many of us can experience deep connectedness with the source of all. Yet silence around matters of mental health continues to cause damage’

Rabbi Landsberg: “Silence is praise,” King David wrote. Indeed, it is in moments of deep stillness and silence that many of us can experience deep connectedness with the source of all. Yet silence around matters of mental health continues to cause damage.

Our siddur is replete with prayers that speak to matters of the mind, psyche and soul. Before we can pray for the healing of the soul/person, for example, we acknowledge the strength needed to arise out of bed when we are weary. But prayers alone are not enough. We need to speak with one another, because there is no other way to break down the stigma or to find the wisdom that many have learned through their own experiences.

The first time I heard the word “schizophrenia” was when my father tried to explain my uncle’s challenges to me. Our obligation to each other is to ensure that we create safe spaces for honest, painful truths, and to become safe people to have those conversations with.


Rabbi Weiss: Amid the popularization of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which sensationalizes suicide, many are legitimately concerned about what messages their children are receiving about serious mental health issues. Since the controversial series first aired, there has been a surge in web searches about how to take one’s life. Likewise, in the recent news coverage of the suicides of celebrities, such as singer/songwriter Chester Bennington, gratuitous and violent details about how they took their lives eclipsed serious conversation about mental illness.

Ultimately, there is no more powerful tool than ourselves in promoting mental health awareness and education. In-person conversations with loved ones and caring mentors are key. Sometimes, even a caring stranger can save a life. Resources like local hotlines are also important to promote.


As rabbis, educators and parents, we can take an active role in reversing some of the stereotypes associated with mental illness. By establishing ourselves as compassionate, active listeners and creating safe spaces for those suffering from mental illness and their loved ones to speak openly and honestly and express their needs, we can build a stronger support network.

The Torah portion of Nitzavim commands us, “And you should choose life,” but sometimes that choice is not so easy. We all need a loving hand to pull us through life’s challenges and help us battle our own personal demons. And we need to be especially proactive in
reminding people they are holy and always belong.