An Orthodox Jewish man called an out-of-town psychologist to inquire about beginning therapy. Shortly after the client identified his presenting concern, the psychologist asked him basic demographic information, such as his name. The prospective client responded that he was uncomfortable sharing his name, both now over the phone and even later if he became a client. The psychologist was somewhat struck by this comment and tried to reassure the prospective client by explaining the strict terms of confidentiality. The prospective client replied that he comes from an Orthodox Jewish community where the stigma of coming to therapy was extremely high and that he did not want to risk the possibility that others could discover that he attended therapy. Consequently, he did not want even his own therapist to know his name. Later in the phone call, the prospective client stated that he needed to use his health insurance to pay for therapy services. The psychologist explained that he would not be able to submit claims to the insurance company without knowing the client’s name. The client understood and politely said that he then would not be able to attend therapy.
Although the experience may be somewhat uncommon, this vignette highlights the stigma towards mental health that exists in the Orthodox Jewish community. We are fortunate that the topic is not as taboo as it once was. However, hesitation and wariness about acknowledging and discussing mental health still exists. This apprehension about acknowledging mental health issues can unfortunately lead to many individuals and families not being aware of or understanding mental health conditions. This, in turn, can lead to people to feel isolated and to not receive the support and help that they desperately need and deserve.
Orthodox Jewish mental health professionals encounter additional specific challenges. For example, bumping into a client in shul or the supermarket has the potential to be uncomfortable, for both the clinician and client, without the proper preparation. This innocent “rendezvous” may cause clients to reconsider whether to come to an Orthodox professional at all, or may cause them to leave therapy altogether. Another dilemma for an Orthodox clinician is how to develop and maintain a good therapeutic alliance with someone who once was but is no longer part of our community. These are but a few issues that Orthodox Jewish therapists face.
For clients, seeking treatment/counseling from someone outside the community also poses difficulties. For example, does a therapist shake hands with someone of the opposite gender? Will the clinician be able to learn, and be sensitive to, the unique culture of the client, who was raised and lives in a very different environment?
With the growing number of therapists in our community as well as those receiving their services, a group of mental health professionals has been working to establish a local organization to promote awareness in the community and enhance training of mental health professionals. This group has recently decided to become a local chapter of Nefesh International. Nefesh International, the International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals, which operates under the rabbinic guidance of the Novominsker Rebbe and Rav Dovid Cohen, was founded in 1992 to bring Orthodox Jewish mental health professionals, rabbanim, and educators together to address mental health issues in our communities.
The Baltimore chapter of Nefesh will provide seminars and presentations by skilled and seasoned professionals that are geared toward the general community. These seminars and presentations will be addressing prominent and, unfortunately, common mental health issues. Additionally, the local chapter will offer trainings and workshops to mental health professionals that include a variety of topics and issues that are unique to Orthodox Jewish mental health professionals.
Nefesh of Baltimore invites all Orthodox Jewish mental health professionals to its inaugural Melava Malka event on Saturday night, February 7, at 8 p.m., in Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion, which will include a discussion panel of seasoned therapists servicing our community. It will be a great venue to socialize with colleagues and friends, network with others working in the mental health field, and explore the opportunities that Nefesh has to offer. Reservations can be made online at www.BaltimoreNefesh.org or by calling 443-687-7121. Stay tuned for upcoming events for the entire community.