This Rabbi is Breaking the Silence Surrounding Mental Health

Rabbi Kirshner And Wife
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Often stigmatized, swept under the rug and whispered about, there’s no hiding the fact that one in four people around the world are struggling every day with mental health issues—and those in the Jewish community are no exception.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Closter, New Jersey’s Temple Emanu-El knows perhaps better than most the devastating effects unaddressed mental health issues can have on loved ones. In 1996, his brother Gabriel, also a rabbi, left behind a wife and 2-year-old daughter when he took his own life at the age of 36. Since then, Rabbi Kirshner has been a pillar in the mental health community, writing several articles in Jewish publications about the topic and opening up the conversation to the Jewish community at-large.

In May, which is Mental Health Month, Temple Emanu-El hosted a talk between Rabbi Kirshner and ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who lost her ex-husband to suicide two years ago. The two discussed their personal stories, how the Jewish community can address mental health and the startling statistics currently plaguing the country. According to Rabbi Kirshner, suicide is the second most common cause of death for people aged 10 to 35 and the number of youth taken to the emergency room for suicidal thoughts or attempts has doubled in the past 10 years.

“The numbers right now are incredibly frightening—it’s our responsibility as Jews to address this issue head on and look at it from a Jewish, spiritual and human lens,” Rabbi Kirshner says. “There’s no issue that the Jewish people are not immune to, and that includes mental illness. Everyone is either suffering from a mental health issue or has someone in their orbit who’s suffering.”

The significant increase in pressure and stress put on people in the workplace and day-to-day life, mixed with a huge surge in social media use, cyber bullying and graphic online and television content are some of the many reasons why mental illness is on the rise.

According to Rabbi Kirshner, clergy can help destigmatize mental health in their communities by being direct and open with their congregations and not tip-toeing around the issues at hand. At his first High Holy Day sermon at Temple Emanu-El in 2007, Rabbi Kirshner told the congregation about his brother’s suicide and how his family later discovered the root cause was due to years of molestation he endured at boarding school as a youth. Speaking out not only helped him release built-up emotions, but also opened the door for congregants to tell their own stories.

“Me telling my experience opened up the flood gates and several people came up to me afterward telling me about their own challenges and how impactful it was to hear someone else speaking out,” he says. “As Jewish leaders, we’re not trained psychologists, but we do have a powerful voice. It’s important we know the numbers—both the numbers of people suffering from issues and the phone numbers for people who need help to call.”

A key way for congregations to approach the subject is to create a group where individuals or families can feel comfortable discussing their personal issues in a safe, open environment. Rabbi Kirshner points to Sharsheret, a well-known non-profit for Jewish women with breast cancer, as a perfect example.

“Many people engaged in the Jewish world have heard of Sharsheret and know how empowering it is, but right now, there are no organizations, groups or committees for people to discuss depression, anxiety or other serious mental health issues,” he says. “Even if it’s just a small meet-up group that convenes once a week at the synagogue, there needs to be a place where people don’t feel alone. It can make all the difference.”

A good place to start is to simply know the signs to look for in people experiencing mental health issues:

  • Emotional outbursts
  • Continued lack of sleep
  • Sudden loss of interest in a passion or hobby
  • Fluctuating weight or rapid weight loss
  • Substance abuse
  • Social withdrawal
  • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Strong feelings of anger and prolonged negative mood

In the event that someone in your congregation has experienced the loss of a loved one related to mental health, Rabbi Kirshner says it’s critical to assure people it is not anyone’s fault. “Inevitably, people will be riddled with guilt and what-ifs, but it’s really important to teach them that mental health is a disease and that their loved one succumbed to an illness,” he says. “The best way to channel any feeling of regret or sadness is to ensure that no one has to endure that level of pain again.”

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