“My hands were shaking uncontrollably, and every inch of my body was trembling. I was engrossed in complete fear. An accident was bound to happen, and I had to pull the car off to the side of the highway. Here I was in a car and not knowing what to do or what is wrong with me. I was screaming to Hashem for help.” This was Michael’s first major encounter with a severe episode of a panic attack after suffering months of insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Michael was one of the speakers at the “Mental Health Awareness: Stop the Stigma” event on June 16 at Ohel Joseph & Brukho Toxsur Rego Park Center. The purpose of the event was to start the dialogue and acknowledge the fact that many individuals in our community who are faced with mental health issues often avoid or delay seeking help due to stigma.
At first, Michael, like many others, delayed seeking help, due to internalized shame and self-doubt coupled with negative attitudes from people around him. Many times, he was told by many around him that the issues he was facing were “all just in his head” and for him to “man-up.” Fortunate for Michael, the episode he experienced while driving was an epiphany, a turning point, when he finally realized that he had a serious problem and needed to seek immediate help. In the end, he sought the help he needed and has successfully recovered.
However, not all in our community are fortunate to get the help they need in order to recover, and that is primarily attributed to stigma. According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people with mental illness don’t receive help for their disorders. That’s because stigma against people with mental illness is still very much a problem. Besides facing the public stigma, which involves the negative or discriminatory attitudes that others have about mental illness, individuals with mental illnesses also face self-stigma, which includes internalized shame and the feeling that the illness is a sign of personal failure.
Our community, and particularly our youth, are facing a number of mental health challenges that manifest as severe depression, suicides, and drug overdoses. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 13% of young adults in the United States have major depression. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. There are close to 5,000 drug overdose deaths among individuals between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Public stigma in our community is a major roadblock in tackling the above issues. Stigma can contribute to worsening symptoms and reduced likelihood of getting treatment. Brushing the problem under the rug or telling the person to “man-up” does not solve anything; it makes things worse, as it can lead to reduced hope, lower self-esteem, difficulties with social relationships, and, G-d forbid, more chronic or severe psychiatric conditions.
“You don’t know what problems people are carrying. Be kind always.” Quoting Robin Williams, the famous comedian who unfortunately committed suicide. Rabbi Eli Blokh, another speaker at the event, stressed the importance for us as fellow Jews to always have “rachmanut (mercy)” towards our people and to stop advancing the stigmas.
To have a positive relationship with people and G-d, a person facing mental health challenges cannot just wish it away. The first step is to admit that there is an issue and seek treatment. You should not let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness prevent yourself from seeking help. Secondly, you should not let stigma create self-doubt and shame. Educating yourself about your condition, seeking counseling, and connecting with others who have mental illness can help you gain self-esteem and overcome destructive self-judgment. Thirdly, do not isolate yourself. Share your situation with others who can offer you the support and compassion and give you proper direction on the road to recovery.
Following widespread appreciation for the event, organizers have begun taking steps to plan more events on mental health awareness at Ohel Joseph & Brukho Rego Park Center. To stay updated on these upcoming events, please reach out to Nissan Yusupov at 646-732-3410. To learn more about mental health in general, you can speak with Michael Kaziyev at 347-513-5959 or Rabbi Eli Blokh at 917-940-5949. The entire program of nearly an hour and a half can be viewed at www.youtu.be/SnRqyioJ7eo.
By Nissan Yusupov