The turnout alone for an event at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation titled “Depression and Suicide in the Jewish Community” was quite telling.
Roughly 450 people packed the synagogue’s main sanctuary Feb. 4 to listen to a panel of speakers discuss the causes, symptoms and consequences of depression and suicide as it manifests in adolescents, adults and seniors, and to stress the need as a community to eradicate the stigma associated with mental health issues.
“The topic clearly strikes a chord,” said Molyn Leszcz, psychiatrist-in-chief at Mount Sinai Hospital and moderator of a panel that consisted of Danielle Berman, founder of a campaign to raise awareness for mental illness and suicide called Ride Away Stigma; Marshall Korenblum, psychiatrist-in-chief at Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families; Lesley Wiesenfeld, deputy psychiatrist-in-chief at Mount Sinai; and Jonathan Golden, director of clinical service at Jewish Family & Child (JF & CS).
Rabbi Noah Cheses of Shaarei Shomayim told The CJN that the event, initiated by several congregants from Shaarei Shomayim and Beth Tzedec Congregation, was co-ordinated “in reaction to occurrences that struck and rattled us.”
He said a number of his congregants and members of the broader Jewish community were affected by suicides that occurred over the summer.
He also referred to an incident last fall in which a young man who had attended Camp Ramah and was known by many of his teenage congregants took his own life.
“[These events] precipitated conversations, but these weren’t happening at the Shabbes table. They were hush hush. So we felt a responsibility to bring to the forefront a community conversation and shed light on an area that’s long been in the shadows,” he said.
The talk was sponsored by the two synagogues, as well as Camp Ramah, JF & CS, Mount Sinai, and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.
Leszcz gave an introductory address, emphasizing the need in Canada for a concentrated effort by communities, schools, workplaces and governments to invest in mental health prevention and treatment.
Governments are falling short, he said, noting, “Canada should be spending 13 per cent of its health-care budget on mental illness, and instead it spends seven, the lowest among virtually all the world’s wealthy countries. Yet we know that every dollar invested in mental health care returns a fourfold increase in productivity and lowers health costs.”
Further, while progress has been made in terms of greater discussion of mental health issues in the media and popular culture, Leszcz stressed that a stigma prevails and is extremely destructive.
“It’s a form of discrimination, and we know that being an object of discrimination is poor for mental health,” he said.
Stigma contributes to individuals’ unwillingness to seek treatment, he said, and the outcome of that can be lethal.
“Suicide takes the lives of 15 out of every 100,000 people in this country and is the leading cause of death for males between the ages of 10 and 49… despite advances in mental health care over the years, suicides have not declined.”
Leszcz pointed to the risk of depression going untreated, explaining that each untreated episode increases the likelihood of having another one.
Countering stigma requires comprehensive intervention tactics that address prevention and early recognition of mental illness, holistic treatments and maintenance of care, he said.
On the prevention side, for example, schools can work to create healthier environments that are more accepting of diversity, because there’s a toxic connection between bullying and depression.
“And we need to take pressure off our young folks. Kids need to know they can be good and successful without being at the very top [of their class],” Leszcz said.
Workplaces should promote greater psychological safety, and more advocacy is needed to increase research and funding for mental illness.
“Forty years ago, we declared a war on cancer. We need to do the same now with mental illness,” he said.
Wiesenfeld spoke about how depression affects older adults, pointing to loss, declined physical health and a sense of being invisible or socially isolated as common contributors.
It’s important for family members of older adults to urge loved ones to seek treatment if they have signs of depression, she said.
Korenblum addressed what depression looks like in adolescents, highlighting its range of causes, symptoms and the crucial need for accessible treatment options.
Leszcz told The CJN there’s a strong possibility the organizers will plan more events on mental illness in the community.
He said he hopes the audience’s biggest takeaway is that the community should feel a sense of responsibility every step along the way, “from birth of a child through development, school, organizations, synagogue life, etc., to create psychologically safe environments that promote strong connections, build resilience and recognize when help is needed.”