Over the past few years, as I have traveled to congregations for my Jewish Sacred Aging workshops, the issue of mental health has emerged as a very present concern. I do not know of any clergy who is not familiar with this issue as a regular aspect of his or her pastoral counseling; regardless of age.
There are statistics galore that speak to the issue of depression in older adults as being a major factor in decline of health and even a contributor to people taking their own life. The mental health issue, as many of you know, is a family systems issue, for it impacts an entire family system in how a person is cared for and how such a person is supported. Interesting also is the fact that there are limited resources with the religious communities that speak to the issue of mental health.
In my own Jewish tradition, the texts from tradition have several instances that speak to what we would refer to now as mental illness. The first instance actually appears in the book of I Samuel, when David is called upon to make use of music therapy to soothe an overwrought King Saul who had been overcome by what the text literally calls an evil spirit. Subsequent texts, such as Talmud, actually engage in a behavioral based diagnostic approach, an approach that was expanded through the centuries by later authorities. The reason for these texts was to determine if a person who seemed to be or who was judged to be mentally ill could ever be counted as a witness in a religious court.
One of the great challenges to our community is now emerging. I speak of the rise in cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are about 5 million cases of Alzheimer’s now in the USA. With the longevity revolution at hand and the aging of the baby boomer generation well under way, the Association predicts that number to approach 15 million within the next few decades.
One of the great ethical and social policy questions facing us is, who and how will pay for the care that will be needed. Just about every expert in this field has warned that there will not be enough qualified, trained doctors and care-givers available to handle this expected rise. Very few families have the resources and training to deal with this. Strange that given these realities, so little is being discussed on a public policy level.
Several years ago, while directing a program department for the Union for Reform Judaism, we developed a project designed to raise the awareness within congregations of mental health. The book we published, “Caring for the Soul: R’fuat HaNefesh: A Mental Health Resource and Study Guide“, contained a series of essays and two very powerful healing services designed to support individuals and families who were dealing with this issue. The program sparked the creation of many programs and sermons that focused on this subject.
The fact that the clergy stood and preached on this issue allowed people who were feeling marginalized because of this to have a sense of belonging within the community. The creation of large scale educational programs also helped bring this issue out into the open and reduce the stigma that still exists. It is a true-ism that it is easier to have a conversation about cancer than it is to have one about something like bi-polar disorder.
We urge you to consider taking this message to your religious community. Have a discussion with your clergy and see how you can, through the power of the pulpit and/or a series of programs, raise this issue, create heightened awareness and reduce the stigma. You will be blessed to do so.