There is no stigma associated with having cancer, observed Dr. Hartley Stern, a surgeon who is now executive director and CEO of the Canadian Medical Protective Association. However with mental health, “in many ways it was considered your fault. While role models like Clara Hughes and Michael Wilson have come out to speak about mental illness, have they moved the needle?”
Stern, chair of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, made those comments while moderating a panel discussion, “Breaking the Mental Health Stigma in the Jewish Community,” during the Federation members’ meeting, November 20, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
The panelists were Dr. Kathi Kovacs, chief of psychiatry at the Queensway Carleton Hospital; Rabbi Robert Morais, spiritual leader of Temple Israel; and Sarah Caspi, a social worker and assistant executive director of Jewish Family Services of Ottawa (JFS).
Regarding the stigma of mental health issues, “while the courageous stories of Clara Hughes and Michael Wilson have helped a lot,” said Kovacs, “there is still the individual stigma. People often don’t know what’s going on, they feel worse about themselves, and it grows and grows and grows. They feel flawed and broken and that they’re fraudulent… The process of actually getting help is very difficult in Ottawa and across the country.”
And then there’s public stigma.
“If you have to take time off, what do you tell your boss? It’s a long journey… It’s a very difficult road,” Kovacs explained.
“Funding in mental health is seriously lacking,” she said. At her hospital, she explained, “the mental health area is old and grungy, with no privacy… It’s the last place to be renovated.”
Kovacs said a study found no difference in rates of mental health problems between Jews and non-Jews, but that Jews were more likely to seek help for their problems.
Rabbi Morais said there is a long tradition in Jewish texts about aspects of healing that are relevant to mental health issues, explaining that Maimonides wrote about “sickness of the soul.”
“There are experts in the field who can help us heal our ‘soul,’ which I believe is code for treating mental illness,” he said.
As well, Rabbi Morais noted Jewish tradition has created responses to grief.
“Our history and our traditions show grief is not something you get over, it’s a part of who you are,” he said.
Rabbi Morais also observed that some people who have experienced difficulty in getting help for mental health issues will turn to their rabbi for help.
Caspi said JFS has a large team of social workers and support psychologists who offer mental health services, such as the Walk-In Counselling Clinic, Shalom Bayit, and The Counselling Group, which provide counselling and support services for individuals, couples, children, families, schools and organizations. Any Jewish person in need of assistance can call 613-722-2225 and ask for Tikvah intake.
“One of our biggest concerns is people not having access to psychiatry,” said Caspi, who noted that JFS provides help at all stages of people lives.
The panelists agreed there is more awareness of mental health issues, but that not enough funding, access or resources are being provided.
The meeting also included a presentation by Federation President and CEO Andrea Freedman on Federation’s project to build the “Jewish superhighway” to “create meaningful experiences and Jewish journeys – where Jewish life is vibrant and no one is left behind.”
She asked the audience to image a “virtuous community cycle” along the superhighway of more Jewish philanthropy, stronger community organizations, more frequent and significant Jewish experiences, and a more involved Jewish community.