Why Can’t We Talk About It?

maayan_jaffe_squareThis week’s cover story is principally about mental illness and suicide. But the real story is one of communication — or rather missed communication.

Despite the fact that mental illness can strike anyone regardless of age, economic status or religion, those with the disease are often stigmatized. No one wants to talk about their experience. Some people are so distraught that they kill themselves — literally and figuratively.

Lack of dialogue means lack of understanding. Lack of understanding leads to isolation and depression.

Unfortunately, there are countless examples where the Jewish community (although not just the Jewish community) is unwilling to discuss the issues that haunt us. People are afraid that if we speak about problems in our community, we cause a shanda. In truth, the shame is caused by staying silent.

Intermarriage. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Sexual abuse, physical abuse. Learning differences. Physical differences.

We need to talk.

Honest conversations are essential for success. In fact, a recent study showed that companies whose managers engage their teams in open and honest communication perform in the top half of their industry.

So why don’t we always do it?

For one, the truth is scary and hard to deal with. The problem with this reasoning is that people pick up clues that something is going on, and the rumors — the whispers — do more damage.

We believe that if we don’t talk about our issues they will go away … or at least we won’t have to worry about them. Except that the longer it takes us to find ways to deal with our challenges, the greater the challenges become.

The shame factor: If we admit problems exist, “outsiders” will lose respect. Not true. Respect comes from an understanding of the whole picture; a community can have both strengths and challenges (just like people). And if we air our “dirty laundry,” we empower ourselves to come together and find creative solutions.

When I sat down with Simone Ellin to edit her article, I was blown away by some of what I read. For example, a 2012 study by Israel’s Interdepartmental Ministerial Committee for Prevention of Suicide found that 20 percent of gay and lesbian Israeli youth had attempted suicide as compared with 3 to 5 percent among Israeli youth who are not LGBT; and that is despite the fact that Tel Aviv was named among the most gay-friendly cities in the world.  Miryam Kabakov, co-executive director of Eshel, Inc., thinks this is because these young Jews feel ostracized from their community, that they don’t have a place.

“They feel like the world is closing in,” said Kabakov.

Now that is a shanda.

I am not condoning homosexuality — or taking a stance on the issue at all. That is not my place but the place of those much more educated in Torah than I.

What I am saying is that we cannot be afraid to talk about this issue — or any of the others noted above. Lives are at risk. And there are few exceptions in which one cannot break halacha to save a life, let alone speak out to save a life. If more people had spoken on behalf of the Jews during World War II, many of our ancestors would still be alive.

Silence is suffocating. Dialogue dispels stereotypes and builds trust.

Let’s talk.

Maayan Jaffe is JT managing editor
mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

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