Creating Mental Health Safe Spaces

The Jewish community has an incredibly diverse, sophisticated and successful network of not-for-profit organizations focused on social justice causes. Organizing, for the sake of improving the world, seems to be part of our DNA. And yet I sense no greater openness to mental health issues within the Jewish community than in the United States as a whole.

mentl_hlth_logo_r4by Jamie Bornstein

Just prior to Yom Kippur I wrote a piece for Cognoscenti, a Boston-based NPR site, entitled “Coming Out of the Medicine Cabinet: Why I Take Celexa.” The decision to tell the world about my struggle with anxiety and obsessive thoughts was not an easy one, but doing so was one of the more rewarding experiences of my life.

Personal stories about struggles with mental health issues and the use of antidepressants flowed in from all corners of my life, and they continue to come in. Friends, career mentors, distant acquaintances, colleagues, family members, and complete strangers have opened up to me.

While deeply touching, the outpouring of stories has also been very unsettling. The number of individuals, successful and substantive people, privately harboring their struggles is astounding.

What would it have been like for me, I wonder, had I known even a fraction of these stories ten years ago? Who might have I approached for help and advice? How much earlier would I have found the help I needed?

And the question which rings the loudest in my ears: Who else, right now, is experiencing the pain and isolation that I felt ten years ago?

The Jewish community has an incredibly diverse, sophisticated and successful network of not-for-profit organizations focused on social justice causes. Organizing, for the sake of improving the world, seems to be part of our DNA. And yet I sense no greater openness to mental health issues within the Jewish community than in the United States as a whole.

I think we can do better.

The LGBT community has very successfully circulated “safe space” decals which adorn offices, cubicles, dorm rooms, private homes, cars and beyond. They signal that a space, specifically the people who occupy a space, are supportive of those whose sexual orientation is something other than heterosexual. It indicates to those who are scared to come out, to those who are struggling to understand their own identity, that in this space you will not be judged.

The same spaces are desperately needed for those coping with mental health issues. It is imperative that we signal to those who are struggling with disorders, specifically those who feel isolated in their struggles, that they are not alone. They are in fact part of a large, albeit silent, community and within that community are inspiring stories of obstacles overcome.

It is my hope that the Jewish community will adopt the Mental Health Safe Space seal (designed pro bono by Elke Barter Design) to adorn our offices, cubicles, dorm rooms, web platforms and beyond. In doing so, I hope fewer people will confront the false sense of isolation that I confronted.

To participate in the creation of openness and safe spaces, please consider joining me by doing the following:

  • “Like” the Mental Health Safe Space page on facebook (www.facebook.com/mhsafespace) and share your mental health story or thoughts on mental health safe spaces.
  • Save the Mental Health Safe Space image from this article and use it as your online profile picture for one week.
  • Finally, request your free Mental Health Safe Space sticker by sending your name and address to mhsafespace@gmail.com.

While the web may be an endless resource for cold data and anonymous vignettes of psychological struggles, there is no substitute for a real live friend or colleague who can look you in the eye and say, “I understand. I’ve been there. Help is available.”

James (Jamie) Bornstein has worked in the Jewish community for 14 years and is currently the Assistant Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, North America. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and earned his MBA at Boston University. He lives in Sharon, MA with his wife and their three children.