Go To yourself || A reflection on mental health
This week’s Torah portion always feels like another moment of beginning--- having made it through the flood, with God’s promise to never again destroy the earth’s inhabitants, we are introduced to the person who will set humanity forth on a journey of becoming, and of blessing.
Avram appears in a moment of unexplained chosenness---
the one to whom God directs those famous words:
Mi beit avicha-
Get going- God says. Go forth---
Leave your land,
Leave your birthplace,
Go from the place of your ancestors, and go to this land that I will show you.
From the very beginning, with this opening invitation to embark upon a journey, we know that Avram is destined for importance. God continues, promising Avram “ I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Gen 12:1-3).
All told, it’s an enticing promise, for an unknown man, who until this moment, we imagine was living a rather unremarkable life.
Lech l’cha! This command--- often translated as “ go forth” is interesting.
Read literally, we might better understand it as Lech (Go) and L’cha--- to yourself! Many a rabbi has offered a drasha on the spiritual dynamics of God’s call to Avram--- a journey inward, a journey to himself, a journey toward the most fully realized version of himself.
I had this Torah portion--- and that particular interpretation in mind as I signed on for the first session of a new group of women rabbis being offered and facilitated by Dr. Betsy Stone--- a renowned psychologist who teaches extensively on burnout and post-traumatic growth.
Rabbi after rabbi spoke--- reporting unprecedented levels of exhaustion, depression and anxiety. Feeling like they can only operate at extremes--- either hyper productivity or unable to get out of bed. They spoke about the pain they feel in constantly hearing stories of pain, loss, loneliness--- feeling ineffective to help in any real way. One rabbi after another—sharing a variation on the theme: struggle, fatigue, anxiety, and hopelessness.
And then, thinking of Avram, and that idea that he was supposed to respond willingly to a call to go on a journey inward--- a journey toward himself, all I could think to myself was “oy. That sounds terrrible--- exhausting! Who would want to do that?”
When I reflect on the observations of my colleagues, and think of my own experiences navigating the last 18 months- I wonder if we’re not all, wittingly or unwittingly, like or not-- a litle bit like Avram? On a journey inward- having been displaced from all that we knew before, without much a choice but to keep going.
I am noticing and hearing about similar feelings and experiences from folks across the spectrum--- people who are feeling greater levels of hopelessness now than they felt a year ago; folks who are more burnt out from caring for aging parents or young children than ever before, people whose tolerance for being alone, not feeling able to travel or socialize as they would like is reaching zero. These feelings are especially pervasive in those who work in the helping professions as they are sometimes called: teachers, social workers, psychologists, case workers, and yes, clergy.
It’s hard not to feel like we are all moving too quickly, to do too much, all at once--- if only to avoid having to lech l’cha--- to go inward, and to confront some of those harder feelings of grief, loss, betrayal, hopelessness, and anxiety. If I put myself in Avram’s shoes right at this moment--- leaving it all behind, literally--- leaving home? That doesn’t sound easy.
And so tonight, lech lanu--- let’s go inward to ourselves, lighting a light together in the usually darkened corners of our communal consciousness.
This past Sunday, the internet was kind enough to remind me that it was “World Mental Health Awareness Day”. My newsfeed filled with personal storytelling, links, and memes all intended to erase the stigma around mental health challenges, and to open up a conversation around what possibilities for growth and healing exist when we take mental health as seriously as we do physical health.
On a national level, we know that people are suffering.
We know that the pandemic has created a corollary epidemic: a mental health crisis the likes of which we have never seen before.
Anecdotally, and here on a local level: those who work in the mental health profession will tell you that they are working beyond max capacity now. People who have decided its time to seek help are unable to find a professional with availability. As clergy, my colleagues and I are all seeing unprecedented levels of outreach for pastoral care--- sometimes as a last resort when professional mental health resources are unavailable.
Mental health feels of greater significance than ever--- statistics around mental health, mental illness, and the lack of corollary support and treatment is staggering. According to the Rand Corporations’ 2019 study, 46.6 million Americans suffer from mental illness—that’s nearly 20% of the population. This summer, as a follow up to that study, which took place before the pandemic, Rand hired an artist to make an infographic that would image what mental health looks like in America right now. This Image of Mental Health in America is heartbreaking. It highlights these facts, amongst others:
-Fewer than 1 in 2 Americans with mental illness receive treatment
-80% of rural counties do not have a psychiatrist working there
-More than 5 million Americans visit an ER each year in mental health crisis
These numbers belie the human faces behind them--- the individuals and the families who suffer from lack of access to meaningful mental health care. And here again, I would emphasize—this is not a problem that exists “out there”. This is a problem in the Jewish community at large, this is a challenge faced by many members of our own Hevreh community. We are seeing it in our young people--- in school aged children and in our teenagers, we are seeing it in parents of young children, often compounded by the experience that we lovingly call being a part of the “sandwich generation”, and we are seeing it in our adult and elderly population. We are seeing it in people whose professions and vocations are to help people through their teaching, leading and support--- and in people who feel purposeless, and without meaningful ways to spend their time.
This past year, during the height of the pandemic, a remarkable colleague of mine sent me an invitation to a new group on Facebook which she was calling “Mental Health in the Jewish Community”. In her opening post, she wrote openly about the struggles she had as a parent, watching her teen daughter wrestle with anxiety and depression. She spoke honestly about the ways in which the institutions and individuals who comprise her Jewish community rose to the occasion of supporting that child and her family, and the ways in which they did not. A year later, there are now more than 700 members in this group. I still find it remarkable each and every time I see a post, and remember that open conversation around depression, anxiety, addiction, personality disorders, suicidal tendencies, eating disorders, social anxiety and more, were once topics that were mostly hidden away. Something to be spoken of in whispers in the rabbi’s study—if you were lucky. And now, there on the internet, with an audience of hundreds, folks are coming forward: sharing their struggles, and seeking support and meaning in their Jewish communities. We are living through a moment in which the Jewish community is speaking these truths out loud, and it’s a beautiful thing.
This past summer, an admired colleague, Rabbi Avram Mlotek wrote a piece called “I’m a Rabbi With Mental Illness and I’m Done Trying to Hide My Pain”. In it, he writes candidly about his own experience as a rabbi, opening with:
I live with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. As a rabbi, cantor, actor and author, that’s not how I usually introduce myself. But this summer I spent three and a half weeks at an in-patient facility tending to my mental health and that was how I usually identified myself.
He goes on to describe the dissonance in being someone with access to mental health care, a robust social support network, and still struggling.
Powerfully, he concludes:
I write this to you to let you know: I am like you. And to tell you: You are never alone. And I promise you, as many a friend and counselor promised me, it gets better. It is not immediate. It is not as quick and painless as we might want or need it to be. And there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But through therapy, through medicine, and through open channels of communication, you can survive and thrive.
One final note: I want to state the obvious, something I learned the hard way. If your physical vision wasn’t allowing you to see clearly or easily, wouldn’t you say something? If your stomach was causing you physical harm, wouldn’t you seek to get well? In 2021, we ought be able to speak this way of our own mental illnesses without fear and judgment. So, if this piece has moved or inspired you in any way, and if you struggle with these illnesses in your own way, please do the world a favor and share that. Share it privately. Share it publicly. Share it on the rooftops. Or whisper it to just one friend.
It is only when we can name and face our hurt that we can possibly even begin to repair. As Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav taught us centuries ago, “If you believe you have the capacity to destroy, believe you have the capacity to repair.”
Looking back to that inward journey we imagine Avram taking--- let’s push the narrative a bit deeper.
God tells Avram to go forth--- we know little about Avram’s inner life; we can only imagine the impact of this moment might have on him: he’s older, childless, married to Sarai whom he loves--- and now, all of a sudden: so much change. Leaving behind a life he knew, for a promise of blessing. As readers of the text, with the benefit of foresight, we know that Avram’s path will not be smooth or straightforward: he will stumble. He will struggle. He will be tested.
Like so many of us, Avram will be forced to reckon with himself, in the context of a new and unfamiliar world--- having left behind all that he knows. That is a journey that takes resilience and strength. This week’s Torah portion is coupled with a reading from Isaiah as the haftarah, in which Isaiah describes God as “The Giver of strength to the tired (yaef), and to those without energy, an abundance of might” (Isa. 40:29). That verse is then echoed in our morning blessings,as we offer blessings to God who gives strength to the weary “baruch… ha’noten la’yaef koach”.
If you are suffering, reach out. Whisper it even to just one friend, as Rabbi Avram Mlotek beautifully suggests. If you are caring for someone who is struggling with their mental health, there are resources here in our Jewish community, locally in Berkshire County, as well as more national and anonymous resources. There is great power in speaking these struggles out loud--- in our Hevreh emails this past week and in the weeks ahead, you’ll see that we are partnering with a congregant’s new project called Toucan, a peer support app which allows you to connect anonymously with others over the phone, for conversations around shared experiences.
My blessing for us all on this Shabbat is that you will always know, that you are not alone. God does not expect us to make these journeys inward in isolation--- as a divine partner, God’s promise to Avram echoes forward to us: that potential for blessing rests in a place that God promises to show us, as long as we are willing to make the first step forward.