Rabbi Alexandra Wright, The Liberal Jewish Synagogue

Mental illness is not an easy subject to talk about. Although the media and prominent individuals have sought to highlight mental illness, I wonder – to what extent – people still live with the stigma attached to anxiety and depression and conditions such as bipolar and personality disorders, eating and obsessive-compulsive disorders, paranoia, post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and many other illnesses that affect so many of us.

The mental health charity Mind reports that one in four people will experience mental health issues of some kind each year in England. One in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week in England. And these figures are a conservative estimate. They do not include children under the age of 16, people who are homeless or in sheltered accommodation, people in hospitals or prisons. The website also reports that only one in eight people are receiving treatment, the most common treatment being psychiatric medication. Even before the pandemic, the numbers of those reporting mental health conditions had been increasing and there had also been an increase in those who self-harmed or had taken their own life. We also know that 10% of children and young people (aged 5–16) years have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age (www.mentalhealth.org.uk).

Recently, I was contacted by a man whose 34-year-old brother had died suddenly. The brother, who had mild learning difficulties, lived with his mother who had been diagnosed with a physical condition that left her unable to speak or eat. Despite his difficulties, he was caring for her, knew her medication and although there was a degree of co-dependency between them, he was aware enough to understand the distress her condition caused her. But the effects on him were incalculable. His physical health declined, and he stopped looking after himself and became profoundly depressed, comforting himself by eating continuously. The effect of his sudden death on his mother and siblings is traumatic and a source of deep sadness in a family already suffering because of their mother’s illness.

What can synagogues and religious communities do to include and support those with mental illness? Extensive research provides evidence that there is generally a positive relationship between religion and both physical and mental health. While there are many aspects to a religious-spiritual life, it is those related to community that have the strongest relationship with mental health. Community can play a pivotal role in people’s lives, particularly for those not born in the country of their residency. Recent evidence shows that religious congregations are an important source of social capital, providing individuals with a network of social ties with like-minded individuals who share their beliefs and behaviours, their ideas and interests, and their values and vision, which all may be associated with better health.

I see in my own congregation, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, that when families or individuals move from other countries, the process of their integration and involvement in our events, services and activities may reduce loneliness and create a sense of belonging. And support is readily available. Involvement in religious communities has been shown to reduce stress, depression and suicide.

Like most other congregations, in spite of moving into the virtual world of Zoom and other platforms during the pandemic, we had to close down the many events and activities that took place in person – the friendship club, a monthly lunch, Video and Tea, Singing for the Mind, the LJS Drop-In for people seeking asylum, all our adult education and for a year, Rimon – our Religion School. And although we tried hard to maintain and create ties among members of the congregation, we know that bringing people together in person is what helps to mitigate loneliness, stress and anxiety. Zoom can sometimes underline our loneliness and isolation.

We have not even begun to process the effects of the pandemic on our society – especially on children, young people and students whose schools were closed down, and college students left isolated in their rooms, struggling with being at home when they should have been gaining a new-found independence. Many are still left with a sense of dependence, anxiety, panic and distress.

If there is a strong and positive relationship between religion and mental and physical health, it is undoubtedly – as research shows – because of community and a sense of belonging. But a close second to community relationships are the texts, music, rituals, traditions and culture that suffuse Jewish life and that provide us with a rich spiritual aesthetic.

Although Jami Mental Health Shabbat falls on Shabbat Bo when we read the ninth plague of darkness, in my own synagogue we will add another reading of Psalm 86 – a heartfelt cry by the Psalmist asking God to preserve life, to deliver the poet from those forces that harass and oppress him or her, and a prayer to be free from their own lack of confidence and resources. Those who suffer from the anguish of poor mental health in today’s world are like the poet – “poor and needy”, fearful and in need of great love and compassion.

This Psalm is a paradigm for how individuals and communities can offer more to those who need comfort and reassurance at difficult times in their lives. In the traumatic aftermath of the massacre of 1200 people in southern Israel and the cruel capture of hostages on October 7, Israelis have been shaken to their bones. And around the world, Jewish communities are experiencing a kind of “referred” or “secondary” trauma. Many of us with family and close friends in Israel are in a high state of anxiety and profound sadness. In these situations, we are called upon to listen and to be present for each other, to help build relationships of trust and confidence and to be compassionate.

The gentle spirituality of our services – their words and music, the act of bringing together a community to share moments of sadness and joy – can help bring together the broken fragments of our lives so that extremes of distress and anxiety can be mitigated by the calm and steady qualities of loving kindness and compassion, and the knowledge that each human life is sacred.