This is the first of a three-part series. Read the part-two here and look out for the next installment in print and online next week.
In a comfortably lit living room, 10 young adults sit in a circle and check in about each other’s mental health.
Some struggle with depression. Others, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have survived eating disorders; others, suicide attempts. Participants come from all walks of Jewish life; some are secular or traditional, others have broken with Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox pasts.
Terms like “anxiety,” “recovery” and “relapse” settle comfortably with the weight of understanding. After each person has spoken, he or she says, “Dibarti” — Hebrew for “I have spoken.” In response, the group murmurs “Shamati” — “I have heard.”
The support group, informally called “How You Feeling?” is a grassroots project of Rabbi Avram Mlotek, one of the founders of Base Hillel, home-based communities for Jewish millennials that use a rabbi’s home as a convening point for pluralistic Jewish life. Rabbi Mlotek heads Base DWTN in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. News of the support space spreads by word-of-mouth — it now has 10 to 12 regulars who meet on a monthly basis.
“My mental health will be a struggle for the rest of my life.”
“It’s a place for people to come and be emotionally vulnerable with one another,” said Rabbi Mlotek, 30, a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Orthodox rabbinical school that stresses clinical pastoral education, or CPE, in its core curriculum. “Realizing that you are not alone in your struggle has the incredible power to comfort and heal.”
For Sam Langstein, a 23-year-old Brooklynite, the group has been a lifeline. Langstein joined the gathering last year and struggles with depression. Suicide attempts stain his teenage and early adult memories. Though he is making “slow but steady progress,” he lives in fear of a relapse — he was hospitalized again only a few months ago.
“My mental health will be a struggle for the rest of my life,” Langstein told The Jewish Week. Tall and lean with a discreet air, he wears round, thick-rimmed glasses and speaks softly. His hair is cropped short. “I can’t keep silent for the rest of my life,” he said. (Read his story here.)
The mental health support group, which Mlotek started in January 2016, speaks to a growing need among young Jews to create more personal, hands-on approaches to addressing issues of mental health. It is one of several recently launched projects to combat stigmas surrounding mental health problems and to support those struggling to cope and heal. Though mainstream Jewish organizations — including UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services — have provided support to those struggling with mental ailments for decades, in recent years there has been a new, grassroots-level awareness of the problem by young Jews from across the religious spectrum and several entrepreneurial, organic solutions are now emerging.
“The Jewish community is starting to realize that solutions to systemic problems come from within.”
Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist and the founder of a pastoral counseling program at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, attributes the wellspring of initiatives to a fresh willingness to think “outside the box.”
“We live in an entrepreneurial, start-up age,” said Friedman. “The Jewish community is starting to realize that solutions to systemic problems come from within.” YCT was a pioneer in the field of pastoral counseling; today, study in the field is a standard requirement in most rabbinical schools.
The recent spate of deaths caused by opioid overdoses in the Orthodox community is another wake-up call. (Full story here.) Since the beginning of June, it’s been reported that 13 local Orthodox and formerly Orthodox Jews under the age of 35 have died of overdoses; since January of this year, that number is over 100, experts say. While 2016 saw an alarming spike in the number of ultra-Orthodox deaths by overdose — 65 in the past Jewish calendar year, according to Zvi Gluck, director of Orthodox social service organization Amudim — this year’s death toll quickly surpassed those numbers.
Though few studies have compared the rates of mental health disorders in the Jewish community to rates in the general population, Dr. Isaac Schechter, clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Applied Psychology at the clinic Bikur Cholim in Rockland County, believes Orthodox Jews might have a higher rate of diagnosable anxiety disorders than the general population. (Schechter will be releasing his research on the subject in the coming months.) At Schechter’s 1,000-patient mental health clinic, 90 percent of the patients identify as Jewish and 50 to 60 percent of patients identify as chasidic.
“The more insular a community, the more likely it is that anxiety disorders will increase. Everybody knows what is in everybody else’s cholent pot.”
“A tight-knit community has many benefits,” he said, pointing to the exceptionally low rate of homelessness in the chasidic community. “But every positive has a negative downside.” He speculated that anxiety disorders in the Orthodox community are more prevalent because observant Jews frequently feel watched and judged by their peers. “The more insular a community, the more likely it is that anxiety disorders will increase,” he said. “Everybody knows what is in everybody else’s cholent pot.”
There is also reason to suspect that those who leave the Orthodox fold — a growing community that refers to itself as “Off the Derech,” or OTD — have an increased risk of mental health disorders, said Schechter. Though evidence for this phenomenon is thus far only anecdotal, three unrelated suicides among the OTD community in June offer evidence for what some see as a growing trend.
“When people disconnect from a community, their identity is lost,” said Schechter. Though the data is not “clear enough” at this point to draw conclusions, “falling out of hope” can lead to depression, overdose and suicide, he said.
To be sure, though, stigmas surrounding mental health — and grassroots efforts to combat those stigmas — go beyond the Orthodox community.
“Our youth are increasingly thoughtful about how to be inclusive of people with all identities and abilities.”
Beth Rodin, managing director of NFTY, the youth movement connected with the Reform movement, said that mental health has been a “top focus” for teens for the last four years.
“Our youth are increasingly thoughtful about how to be inclusive of people with all identities and abilities,” she said.
In 2011, teen leaders selected mental health as the movement’s “long-term theme” at the national NFTY conference. Programming on the topic has been a “priority every year since,” said Rodin, with advocacy training and awareness events filtering down to the movement’s 8,000 unique participants across the U.S.
“No One Is Alone In This Struggle”
Chloe, a 16-year-old Jewish high school student living in New York, was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) at age 12. She found support through NFTY, where she learned about Here.Now., a year-old mental health initiative of The Jewish Board that gives teens multiple outlets to break down the stigma surrounding mental health, including articles, videos and live performances. (Chloe requested that only her first name be used for privacy reasons.)
“I have come a long way because I am now able to talk about my mental illness,” Chloe wrote in an email. She speaks out about her experience — which includes hospitalization and several outpatient programs — “in order to let others know they are not alone.”
“There are still many stigmas that spread, even with growing [support] communities,” she wrote. “Our community needs to continue to let youth discuss these issues.”
Ethan Halpern, a 17-year-old high school student in White Plains, helped select mental health as the theme for this year’s J-Serve international day of Jewish youth service; J-Serve, a pluralistic youth organization, helps teens organize broad social service projects.
“One teen falling through the cracks is too many.”
“There’s a lot of pressure to get into the right college, to have the right internships, to know the right people,” said Halpern, who is active in his local Conservative temple. The pressure, which he believes is particularly acute in his tight-knit Jewish community, takes a serious toll. “People struggle with depression because there is so much judgement and so much fear — ‘Am I really good enough?’”
The J-serve gathering, which took place in April, attracted 130 New York teens. Featured speakers and several break-out sessions frankly addressed the struggles and stigmas surrounding mental health.
“No one is alone in this struggle,” said Halpern.
A 1997 psychiatric study, “Vulnerability of Jews to Affective Disorders,” found that Jewish men had significantly higher rates of major depression than Catholics, Protestants and all non-Jews combined. While Jews suffer from more depression they have lower rates of alcoholism than the other groups, the study found.
Still, getting “good data” on the subject is tough, said Dr. Friedman. A longer-term solution: “educating and cultivating a more empathetic and proactive clergy.”
“We need to train our educators,” she said. “One teen falling through the cracks is too many.”
“Death Woke Me Up”
At 18, Shanee Markovitz is young to be leading a grassroots startup aimed at helping those struggling with mental illness in the Jewish community. But life experience has lent her wisdom beyond her years. Markovitz’s mother committed suicide a year ago and it was not a secret she was willing to keep.
“People were very scared to use the term ‘suicide,’” said Markovitz, who is currently a sophomore at Stern College for Women. “They were shocked that I opened up about it so quickly. But hiding what happened was too much weight to carry. … I felt really responsible to share my story and not contribute to this ongoing silence.”
While in the past, psychiatric ailments like depression and suicide were frequently met with silence, ignorance and euphemism, a younger generation of Jews is demanding openness and honesty about the fraught subject.
“I felt really responsible to share my story and not contribute to this ongoing silence.”
As the founding vice president of Refuat Ha’Nefesh, a small start-up geared towards providing support to those struggling with mental illness in the Jewish community, Markovitz is tackling that mission head-on. The group, a 501C3, supports those with mental disorders via an online forum called the Support Room, where users have access to mental health professionals, educational materials and emotional support.
Refuat Hanefesh founder and president, Dr. Ariel Mintz, said the Support Room has helped nearly 10,000 people since the group’s launch a year ago.
“There has been a shift in terms of recognition when it comes to mental health,” said Mintz, a psychiatrist completing residency in Minneapolis. The younger generation’s “comfort level on social media” inspired his online approach, he said. “We see a generation that lives on social media — we wanted to harness that willingness to be vulnerable and honest online and use it to help.”
The purpose of Refuat Hanefesh is not to provide emergency care, but to provide a community of support, Mintz clarified. “We’re not looking to offer treatment — we want to form a community that knows what the struggle [of mental health] is all about.”
Rabbi Gluck sought to create a similar network of support when he launched Amudim in 2014. Today, a team of professionally trained caseworkers fields 250 calls a day, many of them new callers. In 2014, the operating budget was $380,000; today, it’s $2.5 million.
“I started working as a lone soldier nine years ago,” said the rabbi, who today regularly speaks on panels about destigmatizing mental health in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community. “I saw a clear link between victims of sexual abuse and those suffering from severe addiction.”
The project “grew from there,” said Rabbi Gluck, who was a Jewish Week 36 Under 36 honoree this year. Though he had earlier dabbled in real estate and selling copying machines, Rabbi Gluck quickly became a full-fledged activist, and a point person for helping those in crisis. At one point, he was taking all the calls on his personal cellphone. “I realized I need an infrastructure. The need was bigger than me.”
The Borough Park native and father of four was initially inspired to start helping those struggling with mental health when he was a teenager, after losing two friends to suicide and drug abuse in a short period of time.
“We are at the beginning of an avalanche of change.”
“Death woke me up,” he said.
Though breaking the stigma, particularly in tight-knit Orthodox communities, is an uphill battle, Rabbi Gluck has seen a “tremendous amount of progress” in the last decade. In September of 2016 he gave a talk in Lakewood, N.J., about sexual abuse and its implications for mental health; 1,400 people attended the event and more than 15,000 watched on live stream.
“We are at the beginning of an avalanche of change.”
“From my perspective, there’s no looking back,” said Rabbi Gluck. “There need not be shame surrounding these issues. There need not be fear, embarrassment or silence.”
In Teaneck, N.J., Nina Kampler, the mother of 27-year-old Judah Marans, who committed suicide in 2015, has become a resource and sounding-board for parents facing similar struggles.
“We are at the beginning of an avalanche of change,” said Kampler, a lawyer and real estate advisor. Shortly after her son’s suicide, she decided to speak out. “Our family was liberated immediately from the pressure of navigating the ‘secret,’” she said. “My son carried a terrible shame with him while he was alive — I refused to let there be shame in his death. Anything less than full disclosure would disrespect his memory.”
Today, she meets regularly with parents of children who have taken their own lives, and parents who fear their children might be on that path. “In my own tiny way, I try to help them understand that they do not have to be blamed or embarrassed by what their child did.”
“I’m standing inside the volcano,” she said, referring to the stifling effects of the stigma surrounding mental health. “But the lava is heating up. Change is happening. I see it from within.”
Slowly, she said, the message that shame need not be part of this journey is beginning to resonate.
Downtown, Mlotek’s group at the Base is growing.
“I see myself as a participant,” said Mlotek, who has been open about his ongoing struggle with depression. “The group challenges me to embrace a part of my own identity.”
“I’m standing inside the volcano. But the lava is heating up. Change is happening. I see it from within.”
The support circle model — open to participants from all denominations and backgrounds — is spreading. One past participant, who requested to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, took the support circle idea and brought it uptown to Washington Heights. There, a similar support group is beginning.
“When we share in vulnerability, we come alive together,” said Mlotek. He quoted a phrase from the Hebrew prayerbook — “vilo nevush li’olam vaed” — and you shall not feel inner shame for all eternity.
“We acknowledge the burden of shame in our prayers. There’s no need to shoulder the burden alone.”
This story is one of a three-part series on mental health awareness in the Jewish community sponsored by the Investigative Journalism Fund. Read part-two here. The next installment will appear in print and online next week.