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Legacy of Newtown: New Communities for Mental Health

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It took the Newtown tragedy -- along with Virginia Tech and Aurora and Gabby Giffords -- to get us thinking about mental illness in this country.

It also should take the social isolation of the perpetrators of the Columbine and Boston Marathon tragedies to get us thinking about how, in our "bowling alone" culture, our faith-based communities can be more welcoming and inclusive to those coping with disabilities both physical and mental.

In this past week's Torah portion, Balak, there are important lessons about being blind to reality and about the need for communal help and support.

In the portion, Balak, the king of Moab, who has seen the victories of the Israelites, fears the Israelites will conquer his land next. Balak sends his messengers to summon the sorcerer Balaam. Balak persuades Balaam to curse the Israelites so that Balak can defeat them on the battlefield.

As Balaam is on his way to Moab, his donkey sees an angel of God in the road, sword drawn and blocking the way. Each time the donkey protects Balaam by refusing to move forward, Balaam, who doesn't see the angel, beats and curses her, until finally, God gives her a voice with which to rebuke Balaam.

Even as she speaks, Balaam verbally abuses her. Only when God allows Balaam to see the angel for himself does Balaam stop abusing the donkey. Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites instead of cursing them and prophesying that Israel's enemies will be defeated.

The story has aspects of a fairy tale -- almost a cartoon fantasy -- with a light-infused, sword-carrying angel, a respected but misguided prophet who becomes agitated, stubborn and angry when his journey is detoured by a talking animal whose intercession shows the prophet the error of his ways.

For me, the story offers a lesson about temporarily not being able to see what's real, how we need the involvement of others to help us see clearly again, and how those critical support people also need the help and support of others.

Balaam's inability to see the angel is as if he has a veil covering his sight that prevents him from seeing what's in front of him. This is not unlike having the dark veil of mental illness cloud your judgment and distort your perception of reality.

I know all too well what that's like. Twenty-five years ago I suffered a major depression. Years after my recovery, when I went public, it was hard for others to reconcile this troubled tale coming from the healthy, happy, person they knew. How had I been able to climb out of that darkness and to get well? Here's where the talking donkey comes in.

When Balaam couldn't see the truth that the angel represented, he was fortunate to have a faithful friend who could. Three times the donkey turned off the path to take Balaam out of harm's way, and three times Balaam verbally and physically abused the animal. Finally God gave the donkey the power of speech, and the donkey told Balaam about the angel. Only then did God allow Balaam to see the angel himself.

Balaam's donkey had trouble convincing its master that his perception of the road ahead was not correct. Similarly, it's very difficult convincing someone who is mentally ill that his or her view of the world is not correct. But, like the steadfast donkey, loved ones must stay involved and engaged and help with critical decision making since mental illness robs you of your ability to think clearly.

Once it became clear to them that I was ill, my friends and family were my lifeline. I wasn't easy to reach. The insidious part of mental illness -- caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain -- is that it's your mind and behavior that are affected. When people tried to tell me that my perception of the way things were was inaccurate, I, like Balaam, often struck out in anger, belligerence and agitation.

Because of stigma, I refused to let anyone know what was happening, relying on my steadfast and devoted but overwhelmed husband to keep house and home together while his formerly capable wife was falling apart.

Once I no longer could keep things a secret, my friends and family from near and far called me, came to visit, reminded me about my former self, and urged me to seek help. But they too were operating in a vacuum without the information and support they needed to help me help myself.

Mental illness is prevalent in all communities. It manifests itself in many ways and in all age groups and can result in alcoholism, drug addiction and homelessness. It affects kids with anxiety disorders, teens with eating disorders, new mothers experiencing post-partum depression, adults with various episodic and chronic conditions, and the elderly coping with life changes, physical changes, and various forms of mental deterioration such as dementia. It also seriously afflicts veterans dealing with PTSD.

Unfortunately, like Balaam, we do not see the extent of the problem nor do we talk about what is admittedly a difficult topic. Part of our blindness is a result of the stigma associated with mental illness and our lack of understanding of the causes of and treatments for mental illness.

That is why, like the donkey, I have chosen to speak out hoping that by telling my on-going story I can be an opinion leader and change agent, someone whose message can be heard and responded to.

Eight years ago Beth Am Women, the sisterhood of Congregation Beth Am, chose to focus its attention on the topic of mental illness. The key event was a conference entitled "Yehi Or (Let There Be Light): Shining a Light on Mental Health/Mental Illness."

Congregants and members of the local community came to learn about mental illness and share experiences.

A result of the conference, which itself became an award-winning model program, was Beit R'fuah (House of Healing), a synagogue-based, lay-led support group for those who cope with mental illness and the family and friends who support them.

Adapted from a successful group at a local Presbyterian church, our group welcomes all, including those who do not attend our synagogue and those who are not Jewish.

The group has become a model for similar groups at other Bay Area synagogues, and we are developing materials to help more synagogues and other communities of faith form their own lay-led support groups. For more information about Beit R'fuah, send email to mentalhealth@betham.org.

After the tragedy at Newtown, the press reported that there were support groups available for families with children diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome but that Adam Lanza's mother did not participate. We can only speculate on what insights she might have gained talking with other parents in the same situation.

Those who are part of Beit R'fuah, a community within a community, gain so much from each other. We have become a true family as we help ourselves and other individuals and families who cope with mental illness move from stigma to recognition and on to acceptance; from secrecy to openness; from ignorance to education; from blindness to compassion; from indifference, to grief, and on to action.

Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be God's will.


Jane Marcus, Ph.D.
Past President, Beth Am Women
Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, California
Board member, Bay Area Jewish Healing Center
Board member, Women of Reform Judaism