Mental Health Panel Addresses Pressing Questions


Mental Health Panel Addresses Pressing Questions

Yehudis Litvak

An inspiring and powerful panel event addressing mental health issues in our community was held on Monday, May 13th, at the Harvey Morse Auditorium at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Presented by the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center of Bnei Brak and moderated by Rabbi Jason Weiner, Senior Rabbi and Director of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai, the event brought together diverse segments of the Jewish community with the common goal of improving mental health care for Jewish patients in Los Angeles.

The event opened with a video presentation about the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center, founded in 1990 with the vision of Dr. Moshe Rothchild, z”l, of “quality of life, dignity of life, sanctity of life” for Jewish patients. The medical center operates in accordance with halachah and maintains a state of the art mental health care center—the first of its kind to address the needs of the religious and Chareidi community.

After the video, Mr. Tzvika Ryzman spoke about his personal encounters with Dr. Rothchild. “Twenty-five years ago, a depressed person was considered a shoteh, patur from the mitzvos,” he said. “Now mental illness is not a bushah; it is treated like every other sickness. That is a chiddush of Dr. Rothchild.”

The next speaker, Professor Rael Strous, Medical Director of Mayanei Hayeshua’s Mental Health Center, spoke about the role of religion in mental health treatment. The challenge in working with religious patients, he explained, is to determine the boundary between piety and pathology, which is often not obvious. “When somebody is brought to the emergency room claiming to be Mashiach, how do I know that I’m not really admitting Mashiach?” he asked.

“The aim of the medical profession is to identify pathologic areas,” said Prof. Strous. Doctors need to determine whether the patient’s religious experience is out of context with the person’s culture. It is easy to make mistakes if the cultural understanding is missing. That’s why it helps to have religious mental health professionals on staff, along with rabbis who can be called on to share their expertise when necessary.

Prof. Strous also spoke about the prevalence of mental health conditions on the one hand, and the stigma surrounding them on the other hand. “The stigma is more difficult than the illness itself,” he said, because people are hesitant to seek help. “Eradicating stigma and social distancing [of people with mental illness] should be a priority in public health.”

He also mentioned the need for more resources for patients with mental illness. While our community is known for its bikkur cholim and compassionate care for those with physical illness, patients with mental health conditions are not provided with the same standards of care. Rooms in psychiatric wards are often overcrowded, and the conditions are much worse than in other wards. “I’ve never seen anyone bring flowers to a psychiatric ward,” lamented Prof. Strous. “As a community, we need to take care of our weak,” he urged.

His presentation was followed by a panel discussion with four panelists: Rabbi Dr. Zev Weiner, Attending Psychiatrist at the UCLA Medical Center; Rabbi Avraham Union, Dayan and Rabbinic Administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California; Mrs. Shirley Lebovics, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in shidduchim; and Mrs. Debbie Fox, LCSW, Founder and Director of Magen Yeladim International.

Each panelist addressed the audience and then responded to questions. Dr. Weiner emphasized that while mental health conditions can be debilitating, the available treatments are constantly improving, and many patients are able to manage their conditions and live normal, productive lives. He also encouraged the community to reach out and provide support to individuals with mental illness.

Rabbi Union spoke about the three roles of rabbis when it comes to mental illness: a posek, a source of support and encouragement for patients and their families, and an educator involved in combatting stigma in our community.

Mrs. Lebovics addressed many common myths about shidduchim when mental health issues are involved. Mrs. Fox spoke about stigma and its corollary, secrecy, which lead to less access to treatment and other resources. “Evenings such as this are critical to decreasing stigma,” she said.

One of the questions from the audience involved schizophrenia. Dr. Weiner encouraged patients and their families to “never give up,” explaining that today, people with schizophrenia can lead happy, productive lives. Prof. Strous added that people with mental illness have a right to get married and have children, to the grateful applause of the audience.

A question was raised: when is Los Angeles getting a Jewish mental health facility similar to the Mayanei Hayeshua’s? Jonny Ritz, a community member whose brother suffers from a mental illness, spoke about his vision to bring such a facility to Los Angeles. “Israel is leading the world once again,” he said in reference to Mayanei Hayeshua. “We need to follow the lead.”