Continuing A Conversation About Mental Health

A recent front page article in the New York Times discussed the issue of clergy being more open to raising the issue of mental health. The article, from the November 29 paper, entitled “More Pastors Embrace Talk of Mental Health Ills” by Jan Hoffman ( told the tale of ministers becoming more comfortable with this discussion. We in the Jewish world have also begun to look at this issue. The former URJ Department of Jewish Family Concerns developed a major resource for congregations called “R’fuat Ha Nefesh: Caring for the Soul” (URJ Press. NYC. 2003). Other projects of the department looked at issues of Judaism and Eating Disorders (L’tapeach Tikvah: To Nourish Hope) and self destructive behaviors among teens (“Resilience of the Soul”). All of these projects had a basis in mental health issues. It is no secret that the amount of time rabbis spend in dealing with aspects of mental health concerns is on the rise. From religious school children to older adults, there is a myriad of issues that touch on the field of mental health.
We have already looked a little bit at the challenges of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Yet, issues such as clinical depression and the mental health impact of care-giving and serious illness are steady visitors to many rabbis offices. What many of our people do not appreciate is that our tradition has a wealth of texts that touch on mental health issues. These texts begin with the use of music therapy by David to soothe King Saul and include diagnostic tools, based on observation, that emerge from discussion in Talmud. The point is that our tradition has much to say and that the time is at hand for congregations to begin to discuss, in a more open and organized fashion, what that tradition can teach. The mere fact of a rabbi giving a sermon on the issue can empower people, who may feel cut off from the community, to seek comfort and to feel a sense of belonging. In recent weeks, I have consulted with several congregations who have decided to mount concerted efforts to raise the issue of Judaism’s approaches to mental health and we have been involved for years with congregations who have created very powerful and meaningful half day or full day events that raised this issue on a communal level.
The issue of mental health awareness and education is one of these issues that is gradually finding a path to open conversation that is helping to reduce the stigma often associated with the issue. What not make sure that your congregation or organization schedules a session on this every year. The message it sends can be transformative to all.
Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min

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