Out from Mental Illness and Addiction Stigma and Into the Sun


Delivered this Shabbat in anticipation of former Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s upcoming talk at RS about mental health/addiction parity and de-stigmatization.    At some point during my adolescent years, my father came home with a package and presented it to my sister and me.  It was a box of 1000 red pencils, each adorned with the words, “Just say no.” With the image of a skull and crossbones right beside the slogan, on each one.  Never known for his subtlety, my father’s loving gift reflected the oversimplified messages he was hearing in the 1980’s, about how to keep your children safe.

By the time my red pencils ran out, scientists, educators, therapists and advocates began to discover more about struggles involving substance abuse and beyond.  What does it mean to understand the role of the genetic component to addiction?  Co-occurring disorders?  Or that the stigma of addiction and of mental illness which can strip away respect, dignity and compassion?

Consider the complexities of genetics, co-occurring disorders and stigma, on top of the challenges of peer pressure and temptations to escape, and the presumably well-meaning Just Say No slogan can become an obstacle.  The “just” makes abstinence sound simple.  Originally a response to a question a young child asked of Nancy Reagan, Just Say No, makes avoidance sound easy.

If you fail to Just Say No, because perhaps you have a disease that appears to the rest of us as a choice, we blame you you for having a character deficiency.  We assume your disorder is a result of your own wrongdoing, you are choosing a harmful path, you aren’t trying hard enough, we don’t want those choices to touch us, so we isolate you.  You know we are going to isolate you, so you hide your vulnerabilities and those of your family. Perhaps so much so that you delay getting care.  (Assuming you can afford care.)  And the cycle of stigma continues.

In a nation where the suicide rate is double the homicide rate, we need to remove obstacles to mental health care. And societal stigma does not bring people to treatment.

When you face a question, what is the first thing you do?  When I am considering going to the movies, I ask congregants what they have seen lately.  When I have a medical concern, I ask friends who have faced a similar health challenge.  When I have a neighbor looking for a job, I ask my colleagues who might have an opening.  The first thing I do is activate my network.  But if society tells me to feel shame about my challenge, I don’t activate it.  Instead I turn inward with a secret, withdrawing from the practical and emotional resources that could be propping me up.

In Parashat Tzav, the Torah describes ritual sacrifice.  Some sacrifices are completely consumed by fire.  But the Zevach Shlamim is a sacred meal in which sections of the sacrifice are shared by the priests and the donors of the offering.  Translators do not agree on the meaning of Zevach shlamim.  You can hear, shlamim, shares the sound of shalom, meaning peace or wholeness.  From that meaning, wholeness, it is often called the sacrifice of well-being.

Commentator Baruch Levine prefers the translation, sacrifice of greeting.  Why?  Not because of the word’s root, but because of the term’s purpose.  What makes the Zevach Shlamim special, is its distinction as a feast not only for the priests, but also for the worshippers.  This Zevach Shlamim, this sacrifice of well-being, is also a sacrifice of greeting because it brings community together.

And yet, even in its consistent efforts to bring community together, the Torah finds specific times to separate people.  In this week’s portion, members of the community in a state of uncleanness, face a dramatic punishment: they are to be cut off from their kin.  This description–to be cut off from their kin– depicts a harsh and ultimate consequence of isolation.

In our society, including right here in the Jewish community, too often we have made the mistake of following our Torah’s description of ritual law.  When we focus more on shame, than on healing, we isolate individuals and their families who are suffering.  And when we ourselves are the ones suffering, we isolate ourselves.  Instead of turning to practical and spiritual resources—such as recovery from dependency, we might turn inward with a secret, withdrawing so much that we feel cut off from our kin.

We’ve seen this before.  Do you remember: How did we used to say the word, cancer? In a whisper.  Yet now, when it comes to cancer, more and more we see people have broken free of the secrets, and put their energy into the care.

I have been moved to witness recent attempts to break free from the stigma of mental illness and addiction.

Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thrive NYC, a major initiative to combat mental illness.  When he made the announcement, he mentioned his own daughter’s struggles with mental illness.  He said, much of his purpose includes de-stigmatizing mental illness, so he felt he needed to share his own family’s journey.

Former congressperson Patrick Kennedy, who will speak at Rodeph Shalom on April 12, frees himself from the bondage of family secrets, as he writes in his memoir:  “Secrets are our most formidable adversaries.  The older I get the more I see secrecy as, quote: “the enemy within,” which blocks recovery not only for individuals but for society itself.  That phrase has a special meaning to me.  Not long before he died, my father gave me his copy of his brother Bobby’s 1960 book about union corruption, entitled: The Enemy Within.  It is autographed: ‘To Teddy, who has his own enemy within.’  Giving me that book was the closest my father ever came to acknowledging anything to me about his own struggles.”

Here at our Rodeph Shalom Commonground Farmer’s Market, we partner with the Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services of Drexel to provide our farmer’s market shoppers with mental health support.  The Family Health services nurses provide what they call “a check-up from the neck up” to determine who needs mental health care and to provide resources about how we can access treatment.

For Mayor de Blasio, for Congressman Kennedy, for our neighbors and congregants at our Commonground Farmer’s Market, the message has evolved: Secrets and isolation breed societal stigma.  Stigma is not constructive, it does not lead to personal responsibility.  Stigma promises no protection; and worshipping at its altar leads to brokenness. Stigma only gets in the way of our growth, keeping us in darkness.

Healing means taking a step out of the shadows, into the sunlight.  Unmasking as Queen Esther did in this week’s Purim story, to reveal our truth and become whole.

In teaching about the sacrifices, this week’s Torah portion requires that our offerings be brought during the light of day, because, our sages teach, day– when we can see each other in the light–day is the time of compassion. When we stand in the sun, stigma has the chance to melt away, and compassion to shine brightly.

All of us on a journey towards shlemut, towards wholeness, have different obstacles along the way.  But our community is only shalem — it is only well and whole — when it embraces us all.  For some in our community, for lots of different reasons– it is harder to partake in the Zevach Shlamim  –  the communal feast.

May we work to create a culture where we set judgment and stigma aside, and where we lift up compassion and healing.

May we bring our offerings in the light of day, that we may step out of the shadows, and stand in the sun.