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How to Break Down Barriers of Shame Surrounding Mental Illness

One out of every four of us struggles with mental illness, yet most people we speak with about this feel so alone.

We have been giving people living with mental illness and addiction a place to share stories and strategies, to feel accepted and safe, and to let go of, for many, decades of shame.

We have spent our 35 years as rabbis raising our children, building relationships and serving the St. Louis Jewish and larger communities. This is personal for us because this is our home.

In the last year and a half, we have held almost a session a month in a series called Shanda: There is None. This is our mental health-mental illness opening. We are opening because we are at square one on this subject. We thought we were further along. We are not.

We also meet twice a week in support and teaching sessions called Shalvah on Addictions. Shalvah means serenity. We have been providing these meetings in Jewish spaces since 1981.

Of course, the distinction between substance abuse and mental illness is elusive— false, really. Almost everyone in the addiction groups struggle with some form of mental illness, and surely someone who has been taking drugs or drinking for some years will present as if he/she has a mental illness. Almost everyone comes into the meetings with dual diagnoses or co-occurring disorders; a mood disorder and a problem with substances, for example.

There is still stigma and shame attached to mental illness and addiction. A young woman with depression wrote, “30,000 people die from suicide every year. It’s an epidemic and I know that it’s not my fault and that I am not alone but still I am ashamed to tell you that I can’t get out of bed in the morning. Every 16 minutes someone takes their life and it could so easily be me but you would never know it from looking at me because I am the girl whose life was framed and hung up on a wall for everyone to admire because it looked like I had it all together even though I cannot remember the last time I woke up and didn’t want to die but I am ashamed to tell you.”

Breaking the shanda (shame) barrier will not take her disease away, but we have seen how it makes it possible to live with it and to manage it. We have seen how healing, how life saving it is to tell our stories, to be embraced by community and to let go of the shame.

So, what do we do?

We start with real talk about real problems. We encounter shame and we vow to do something to break the shanda barrier in our community around brain diseases and addiction. We vow that we will not shame or blame.

But at the community level, we are under-prepared, under-educated, under-equipped. We are still laboring under the shanda curtain of shame. We’ve been working to combat the shame associated with drug and alcohol abuse since 1981. We are now turning our attention to the next hurdle, which we believe is mental illness. We begin by talking about it.

We believe that every year at Rosh Hashanah we draw something new into the world. This year, we are drawing down a new awareness about penetrating the veil of hiddenness that surrounds mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse. With the new moon of Tishrei we are drawing out new strategies of lifesaving measures in our community.

We start with talk and more talk. We need to do that with depression and suicide and the other challenges to life that dwell within. We need to illuminate the inner world when it goes dark. Take up a candle, light it, give that light to someone else.

Here’s the pledge we use to open the meetings we hold in our synagogue called Shanda: There is None. We publish the pledge once a month in our local Jewish newspaper.

The Pledge:

**1) I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light.

2) I will be a reminder in every way I can to my family, friends, and community: we have these problems, they are difficult, but there is no shame attached to them and we live in a Big Tent.

3) We can live with our problems.

4) I pledge to break the shanda barrier, which means:

5) Talk, talk, and more talk.

6) I pledge to remind my community that we are working our problems, that being secret may be part of the problem, therefore:

7) I will not practice aloneness. I will talk with somebody. I will pick up the phone.

Shanda means shame. There is none.**

It’s not sloganeering; It’s a raising of the curtain that hides our shame. Our shame is deadly when it keeps us from asking for help. The more we lift that curtain, the more likely our most vulnerable ones will find their way to some help some relief.

We are searching for the engine or the nudge to bring the community into focus on an integrated strategy to meet the challenges of mental illness and mental health. But our community has been difficult to move.

Many of us feel the limitation of isolated responses to the rootlessness and hopelessness that characterizes so much of contemporary life. We could do better by putting our best resources to work on a community response that maximizes limited resources and create new and more creative integrative strategies. We should be a nudge. We should be telling everyone we know.

We are trying to seize the opportunity to assume a community mind on our tragedies so we can deal with them better than in the isolation of our socially gated communities.

We start by telling the stories. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem. Thus the series we created called Shanda: There is None. It’s the next frontier.

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