Sermon: Mental Health Awareness (Mark Greenfield)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 28 January 2018

Good morning and Shabbat Shalom; thanks to Alyth Synagogue for inviting me this morning on mental health awareness Shabbat. First of all a huge mazal tov to the barmitzvah; I’m not sure if reading my portion again or doing a sermon is more scary! I am grateful for  the opportunity to share some thoughts and add to the increasing conversation around mental health in our wider community.

I have been employed by Reform Judaism to do a job in improving mental health awareness alongside colleagues in Reform Judaism’s communities and other areas of the organisation. Part of my work includes to sourcing training, signposting and raising awareness of mental health issues, and beginning the conversation about mental health.

Reform Judaism and Alyth are working together around young people’s mental health, I was kindly offered the chance to train alongside Sami, Tor, and others from the community last Summer to become a Mental Health First Aider, a training offered by Alyth’s welfare provision. I always feel welcome here and would like to say for the record how impressed I was that two school age young people set up their own mental health awareness event some weeks back; amazing to know that this community has such empowered young people – there is much we can learn from their initiative and bravery.

After many years as an RSY leader, trained both here and in Finchley, I started out my professional life as a senior youth worker at Middlesex New Shul in Harrow. I left two years later to work in a number of London borough councils as a youth and family worker for the best part of 14 years. I returned to the Jewish community, albeit only for the summer holidays as a welfare professional in 2009, spending four glorious summers camping, working for RSY as a welfare officer, before my son Robin came along.

I started full time work in Reform Judaism in May, I’d been at JW3 for a couple of enjoyable years overseeing youth and community work and it was time to come home; it was time to face up to a huge challenge, one that I believed in passionately. I struggled with mental ill health as a teenager to the extent where family sourced a psychotherapist for me. I was one of very few peers that experienced that and there weren’t many friends to talk to about my experience. Family were supportive but they didn’t know what to say. RSY, music, football, swimming and art were ways of distracting myself; but I was always aware that sharing my feelings about isolation or strange quietness and shyness were not socially acceptable.

At high holy days last year Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner spelled out the challenges facing young people today; peer pressures, isolation, social media bullying; a lack of certainty around housing and work…the mental health landscape was looking quite bleak. But we are lucky as an amazing individual ( that I have never met ) decided to graciously donate and helped create the mental health and wellbeing role that myself and Sharon Daniels now occupy.

I’d like to share a short anecdote from my former workplace.  I was attending  a staff meeting and we decided to begin our monthly meeting with an amusing ice breaker. Everyone had to introduce themselves and share an ailment they currently had. This group of colleagues was relatively close and comfortable with each other so we felt we could take this risk. Some people chose to share the cold they were staving off; others the inevitable back trouble. There was much humour to be had regarding my confession of IBS – although this was trumped (no pun intended ) by someone else with a recently discovered allergy ( whilst on holiday in Israel I might add ) to camels.

20 people in a room, and how many shared anything to do with their mental health? Not one even though statistics would say that 1 in four, and I would contend that in the arts world that could be higher, experience mental ill health at some point in life. We were a team looking for laughter. A room of people working at a Jewish Community centre, kvetching essentially, about their health was funny. And yet, even in a relatively safe space none of us chose to share anything about our mental health. Would an admission of a low mood, a dark thought, a morning spent in bed…be unfunny?

Jewish culture famously includes tragic comedy – this seems to be a traditional Jewish way of coping! And yet we are unable to speak about our mental health in this way, in a way that humanises it. JW3 are trying to change the Jewish conversation. Their CEO Ray Simonson, well known to Alyth shul, talks of people talking to each other and when the word Jewish come up, in public, they often go…he or she is..Jewish. And this is by Jews! I aspire to live in a time when I can comfortably joke about my truth, that comic relief can include exploring my depression.

My role at Reform Judaism is to change the conversation about mental health, so that we can share with the right people, safely of course, and find a way through the stigma that is still there. We don’t whisper depressed or low mood or anxious. We don’t feel that our sharing it with the right person of course, is ‘killing someone’s vibe’.

Because in the past people would not want to have a chat about mental ill health there are not many one liners on the internet about mental health. I quite like the analogy that saying to someone that has just shared their anxiety or depression with lines like…”it’s just in your head, don’t worry”;  should be compared to a passer by pointing to someone that’s drowning and saying…”it’s just in your chest…don’t worry!!”

So why is Mental Health Awareness Shabbat today? Well it is a strange coincidence this week has the most ‘depressing’ day of the year out known as Blue Monday where allegedly the most people in the year take a day off.  A sick day for feeling sad? How terrible. Well I would argue that shouldn’t be scoffed at. Maybe we should be focusing on how this could be tackled in society rather than ascribing blame to those that are struggling to get in to work owing to among other things, . One newspaper called Blue Monday a plague of sickies!

So…Talking of plagues…

The plague of darkness is described in this week’s Torah portion and is the reason today has been chosen as Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. The ancient rabbis describe this darkness as a deep unremitting Darkness that leads to a physical block. What a common experience. They say; “And there was thick darkness in which they did not see each other for those three days, and another three days of darkness twice as dark as this, so that no one rose from his place. If he was sitting, he was unable to stand, and if he was standing, he was unable to sit.”

All across the country we are talking about mental health. That we all have it. That we can all have periods of darkness. That we are not alone. That even great teachers and biblical figures experienced this darkness.

I interpret this darkness described in the ninth plague to mean mental ill health. Something that leads to depression or anxiety or substance misuse or self injury or criminial behaviour or … This portion describes the feeling that we cannot move. A feeling that there is no hope; a feeling that we are alone. Religious teaching today can use these sources to extract important lessons and meaning to us today. I would argue it is of huge credit to the rabbis in our community that I can sit and learn about eating disorders or depression or self injury through the lens of Jewish scripture. This is part of the ongoing mission, to develop avenues to discuss this oh so common experience through all the channels available to us.

When the darkness comes it rarely feels like light is coming. And when we say it will get better many people do not hear it; But if we can say it enough and back it up with action and a change in culture perhaps it will pave the way for less shame, less embarrassment and the understanding that when we talk about ailments we are not scared of sharing our mental health.

So if I was talking to myself when I was younger, I’d like to say the following. L’chaim! Here’s to a life where you have enough ups, enough love, enough support, the lack of fear to explore your true self, so when the downs come, you will be ready for them. And when you aren’t ready for them rest assured there are communities around you waiting to help!

Many of us are on the journey of discovering better ways of talking to each other where we can share our truth and feel less burdened by the shame of a low mood, or any other forms of depression and anxiety.  We all have mental health. Sometimes it can be diagnosably challenging. Often it is misunderstood even by the person experiencing it…hidden and undiagnosed.

Today there is hope. The emergence of an increasingly interested public; news items regularly highlighting celebrated people with their own mental health issues, and that younger members of the perceptibly more accessible royal family being patrons of mental health charities. There is even change in the Jewish world,  with JAMI, reaching out to schools and communities,  a financial commitment by Reform Judaism to employ a mental health and well being team, as well as work by this community, Alyth, to raise Mental health awareness, running a healing service for mental health and hosting JAMI volunteers for many years. All this work shows, that mental health is everyone’s

Young people are our greatest source of energy and strength, they bring the novelty and efficiency of their age, and my role tries to think of ways we can proactively scaffold a safe passage to adult hood, so, the professional and community safety net we also try to provide is rarely needed.

Our community is in a unique position to share or develop a different voice around mental health We have biblical sources and knowledge that depression has been with us for millennia, we see our cultural ancestry including founding parents of psychotherapies, we have the mitzvoth  of tsedakah and acts of love and kindness, of singing and praying together of and I mercilessly plug here, big banging together every third Shabbat upstairs, of welcoming the stranger and which I would hope this includes learning something new about one’s friend or family…and accepting you didn’t know and that’s an opportunity to help or listen or heal or love…and indeed  the tradition that we can cope, succeed even, through humour.

Talking things though is not everyone’s bag but providing safe spaces to let someone share means we can develop ways of helping; maybe through sports or creative outlets such as singing or…whatever works…in the coming months with visits booked and communities to meet I hope to learn about what the community needs.

If you are concerned about a shift in mood or behaviour among your family or friends, there are an increasing number of people among you, you could talk to, alongside paid professionals. Here at Alyth especially you will find many an empathetic ear. Now there is at the very least the willingness to accept the challenge of supporting our peers and our community members to be healthy in every area. Now we have the ability to work together towards a healthier world together. I wish you all a happy healthy Shabbat.