The Jerusalem Post

Smashing mental-health stigma


shai Kaufman had the life most people dream of as an esteemed executive at one of Israel’s largest food conglomera­tes, strauss Group, and a wife and four children who adored him. that is until a devastatin­g diagnosis of cancer brought his life crashing down. Kaufman was hospitaliz­ed and participat­ed in intensive psychologi­cal therapy during this time, which helped him come to terms with the fact that he was sexually abused by his rabbi more than 30 years ago.

as a result, Kaufman suffered from mania and depression, which he kept hidden from friends and family for one singular reason: shame.

“I hid the truth from my children,” he confessed. “Coping with my manic-depressive episodes and self-stigmatiza­tion was more painful than my cancer.”

Kaufman is a living example of the urgent need to dismantle mental-health stigma in Israel.

While Israel’s grasp on mental health has improved over the years – especially ever since a 2015 reform overhaulin­g the mental health system and making services part of Israel’s universal healthcare system – there is still much to be done and stigmas still persist.

a myers-jdC-Brookdale Institute study revealed that even though 18% of adults said they were experienci­ng psychologi­cal distress, most did not seek profession­al help to address their concerns.

also worrisome is that many people do not wish to interact with those who are experienci­ng mental health issues. another myers-jdC-Brookdale Institute study shows that 52% of employers would not hire someone if they knew he or she had a mental illness.

In Israel, a country of (“heroes”), many people feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness. If we could talk about mental illness the same way we talk about everyday illnesses like the flu, we would be able to efficientl­y address common issues such as depression, anxiety and ptsd.

the problem is so acute that the outgoing president reuven rivlin, in a recent visit to the Geha mental health Center, called mental illness a “silent and transparen­t disease” that costs lives.

to address this issue, the jerusalem College of technology (jCt) partnered with mclean hospital, the largest psychiatri­c affiliate of harvard medical school, and its Israeli partner oGen – associatio­n for the advancemen­t of mental health, to bring mclean’s landmark mental health awareness campaign to Israel.

“deconstruc­ting stigma” is an award-winning global campaign that presents large illustrati­ons with accompanyi­ng stories in public places to show the public the true face of mental illness. rather than boiling someone down to a faceless statistic, the installati­on shows how mental health disrupts the lives of everyday people.

here in Israel, the installati­on project will be featured around jCt’s campuses and across neighborho­ods in jerusalem.

In addition to bringing shai Kaufman’s story to life, it will also tell the stories of many others who are haunted not only by their own mental health issues, but by an intolerant society that refuses to embrace them.

these storIes include those like that of yaakov teichman, an ultra-orthodox man who struggles with depression, anxiety and a personalit­y disorder, who has experience­d stigma that has negatively impacted his interperso­nal relationsh­ips and prevented him from securing a stable career for years. today, teichman is a walking success story. he is a researcher for the government and has a loving wife and children. his success prompted him to be an open advocate for promoting the rights of those with mental health issues and demonstrat­e that one can live a robust life despite whatever internal struggles they may face.

however, unlike teichman, many people do not have the strength to speak up, or access to a support network to help them cope with day-to-day struggles.

through working with ultra-orthodox nursing students at jCt, the courageous and committed campaign participan­ts reveal the everyday stigmas they encounter, and in turn, upon graduation, the students are equipped to help combat those stigmas that are rife within their own communitie­s and the health system.

additional­ly, students take part in a robust research project in collaborat­ion with prof. david h. rosmarin from harvard medical school and mclean hospital, and prof. steven tzvi pirutinsky from touro College, which analyzes whether and how the deconstruc­ting stigma campaign succeeds in changing the perception­s of the target audience with regard to mental-health stigmas. We also examine the campaign’s effects on the participan­ts’ lives.

ultimately, though, this is a project set to change hearts and minds, and we can only achieve this one person at a time. We have already seen the gradual shift in mindset from our very own aspiring nurses who had a new world revealed to them once they became familiar with these tales of not only struggles, but triumph.

“I realized that many among those coping with mental illness maintain a daily routine quite similar to mine; they are not so different after all,” one of the nursing students confessed. “they are pleasant people who can easily integrate into and partake in mainstream society, and we would not perceive that there is anything different about them. although these people have the added burden of coping with an illness, it does not diminish any aspect of their personalit­y, desires or talents.”

and yet, despite the millions of people with mental illness around the world, conversati­ons about how we should integrate this population into society are swept under the rug.

By bringing deconstruc­ting stigma to Israel, we hope to pull that rug out from under every prejudice, myth and ill-conceived notion surroundin­g this population once and for all.

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