Mental Health and the Jewish Community

By Marilyn Kraner

The text below is from a presentation given by Marilyn Kraner, Individual & Family Support Manager, at a recent forum hosted by the Jewish Community Council of Victoria. The forum was on mental health and social inclusion for the LGBTI community.

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A question we often hear at Jewish Care is “What is different about mental health and the Jewish community?” The answer is both simple and complex.

The short answer is that in terms of prevalence, there is no reason to think that the Jewish community is any different to the mainstream population. We know that in any given year, 1 in 5 Australians will experience mental illness, and almost 1 in 2 will be affected at some point in their lifetime. A significant body of research shows that the prevalence of mental illness in minority groups or culturally and linguistically diverse communities mirrors that of the broader population; we can therefore assume that there is nothing particularly different or unusual about the rate of mental illness in the Jewish community.

The longer answer is that in terms of impact, there is a significant difference. While we know that stigma around mental ill health remains a problem in the broader Australian community, its impact in a close-knit community like ours is particularly challenging, for a number of different reasons.

As well as the common drivers of stigma that we see in the broader community, there are a range of social, cultural and religious factors that can make talking about mental illness in the Jewish community particularly difficult.

As most of us know, the Victorian Jewish community, while incredibly diverse, is extremely close-knit. Many of us live in the same area, attend the same synagogues, schools, youth movements, and so on; and while this sense of cohesion and community is a fantastic protective factor, it also means that our lives are often very enmeshed, and there is a very real fear of being ‘found out’ or talked about. So while many of us will happily chat at the school gate or over Kiddush about our various physical health woes, it is far less common for us to talk about mental health.

Eastern European conceptualisations of mental illness also contribute to the impact of stigma. Many in our community have migrated from regions that, historically-speaking, have held particular views about the validity, or lack thereof, of mental illness. For many families of Eastern European descent, mental ill health is highly taboo; it is often not seen as a real or ‘legitimate’ experience, and as a result it can be very difficult to disclose or seek help.

For many also, the perception of the community as ‘high achieving’, and the pressure to be seen as a ‘successful’ person, impacts upon willingness to disclose; a person may be worried about undermining themselves in the eyes of others, and so they keep quiet rather than seek support.

And finally, there is the persistent – very false – misconception that mental illness just doesn’t occur in ‘a good Jewish family’: that it’s something that happens to other people; it doesn’t happen in our community.

In recent years Jewish Care has focused on mental health promotion – the video Dov’s Story is just one example of our work in this area – and we are slowly starting to see a shift in our willingness as a community to talk about mental health; and this is vitally important, given the role of informal supports in recovery, and the impact of stigma and exclusion on a person’s wellbeing and sense of belonging. Research frequently shows that people with mental illness tell us that the most damaging, impactful thing is not the symptoms associated with their mental illness – but rather, other people’s response to it; the devastating effects of stigma and exclusion.

We certainly see this in the higher rates of mental ill health and suicide in the LGBTI community, driven predominantly by the impact of marginalisation and discrimination, and their effects on mental and emotional wellbeing. We can all play a role in making people feel welcome, and embracing them as they are. Shoring people up with community, with acceptance, with belonging, is incredibly powerful.

At Jewish Care we support people from all walks of life, and a key tenet of our work is inclusivity.

We hold the principle that each and every one of us has a range of vulnerabilities, whether that relates to our age, gender, religion, ethnicity, mental health, sexuality – and when we interact with service systems or processes, these vulnerabilities can be impacted on or discriminated against in a range of different ways.

In recognising that, we embrace an inclusive framework that captures all forms of diversity and ability. We strive to be inclusive across all of our program areas – just as we welcome and support people from right across the spectrum of religiosity or observance, equally we are inclusive of people of all sexual and/or gender orientations.

When we talk about vulnerability, in essence, we are talking not about the impact of the vulnerability itself, but the way that society responds to it – how we are treated as a result of who we are. Exclusion, marginalisation, ‘othering’ – all have a devastating impact on a person’s identity, health, and social and emotional wellbeing, and none of us are immune to this.

As Jews we know all too well the impact of such ‘othering’ – and yet many of us perpetuate it within our community. We uncomfortably turn our backs on people who are different in some way. This kind of marginalisation – the kind that comes from within, from the group you belong to – is acutely painful. In our work with young people who are struggling to come out, or in the process of transitioning, we see the impact of this intersectionality – people who say they feel they are being forced to choose between their Jewish identity and their sexual identity, when in fact it is entirely possible to hold both.

As a provider of services to vulnerable people, we’re very proud that Jewish Care is an active supporter of marriage equality – indeed, recently we joined a raft of other not-for-profit organisations who have formally pledged their support via the Australian Marriage Equality website.

However, irrespective of whether a group or organisation are able to overtly support marriage equality in this way, we can turn to our core values as a Jewish community when we are unsure how to respond to someone who may be hurting. The principles that underpin our community – justice, equality, chessed (kindness)are as relevant now as they ever were. As Jews we must be guided by our shared, collective goals of fighting injustice, seeking inclusion, rejoicing in our diversity, and celebrating our connections and all that unites us, rather than what divides us.

I hope the conversation inspires you to hold these values in your mind as we move through the Days of Awe and into the new year. Thank you.

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