A young woman named Karen once came to the URJ to tell me how her life had been saved because of another woman. Michelle, who had been invited to speak to Karen’s Confirmation class nine years earlier, shared with the class her struggle with depression, noting how they too could get help if they ever felt similarly.
Michelle’s story went something like this: During her senior year of high school she had felt increasingly despairing and had thought of suicide even as others envied her recent admission to an Ivy League college, her success as a gymnast and her position as youth group social action chair. When her father was diagnosed with cancer she became even more determined to hide her suffering so as not to cause further worry to her family. “After all”, she had thought, ”I should be grateful for all I have; how selfish of me to be unhappy; I really am an awful person.”
When Michelle arrived at college, her orientation packet included a self-screening test that allowed students to diagnose their own depression privately. It explained that depression was highly treatable and indicated where help was available on and off campus. Karen me asked me to tell others about how the memory of Michelle’s visit and the websites she had shared gave Karen the courage to seek help for her own depression when it occurred years later. Now that Karen was preparing to apply to rabbinical school she wanted to find ways to help others as she had been helped. I am certain that she will help others just as I am certain each of us can reach out to make a difference.
Look around your congregation, your workplace, your school, and within your family and it’s likely that you interact daily with people who suffer the pain of clinical depression. Perhaps you yourself have experienced depression and even gone to great lengths to hide it. Approximately 6-10 percent of adults and up to 13 percent of teens experience serious major depression. GLBT teens report depression and suicidal thoughts at a rate three times higher than other adolescents. Adults and teens with physical disabilities also experience higher rates of depression. In fact, major depression is the most prevalent disability experienced by adults in the United States
Depression isn’t always invisible, however, as when we see a friend unable to go to work or school, or express despairing and even suicidal thoughts. Sometimes we can see he clearly is unhappy—eating too much or too little, having sleep difficulties, or no longer taking pleasure in activities that once brought joy. Sometimes we notice a teen withdrawing, displaying irritability when interacting with others, seeing friends infrequently.
All too often, though, depression is invisible. And for those who suffer silently, it can be as though they themselves are unknown and invisible—even to the people with whom they interact daily. Many who experience considerable pain go to great lengths to disguise and hide their symptoms, appearing jovial, witty and solicitous of others.
Why is depression so often invisible? Why do people hide it from others?
Many different things can trigger depression, including grief, disappointment or hurt—which are feelings we all inevitably experience in the course of our lives. Often, however, we do not recognize the moment when such feelings veer into clinical depression, which is an illness. Stigma and fear of loss—loss of reputation, authority, love, admiration, relationships, employment, opportunities for advancement—most often drive people to hide their depression. Regardless of the reasons—and there are many—that people disguise their depression, most relate to stigma and a silent collusion between sufferers and their community.
Paradoxically, even as depression causes withdrawal from individuals and community, what is needed most are encouraging, warm and supportive relationships that acknowledge suffering, provide enduring connection, and convey persistent, realistic hope.
There’s much the Jewish community can do to render depression visible and eliminate its stigma. For starters, we can speak of it—as real, painful, treatable, worthy of compassionate care, and present among people of all ages and levels of function and responsibility. We can incorporate it into our sermons, mishebeirach prayers for healing, and our schools’ spiritual and emotional health curricula. For those within our communities who are most at risk—older adults as well as those experiencing a distressing life change, grappling with sexual and gender identity issues, or feeling extreme pressure—we can create multiple avenues through which they can experience acceptance and belonging.
Of course, because we cannot always see depression’s risk factors, which can include genetic vulnerability, it is incumbent upon us to create communities in which everyone feels cherished and connected to hope. Only by speaking openly about depression, offering guidance to resources, and creating effective networks of friendship and faith can we provide crucial pathways out of confusion and despair and into clarity and confidence, ultimately helping to ensure that no one suffers alone.
Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher is a licensed clinical social worker and a URJ Faculty Member in the field of Sacred Community.