A capacity audience filled the Harvey Morse Auditorium at Cedars Sinai Medical Centre, Los Angeles, on Monday 13 May 2019, for an inspiring and powerful panel event, “Addressing Mental Health Issues in the Community.”
The event was sponsored by the American Friends of Mayanei Hayeshua, Israel’s only culturally-sensitive Community Hospital, and was moderated by Rabbi Jason Weiner, Senior Rabbi and Director of Spiritual Care at Cedars-Sinai.
The evening opened with Mr. Zvi Ryzman speaking about his personal encounters with the hospital’s dynamic founder Dr. Moshe Rothschild: “When I first met him 25 years ago, he told me that mental illness must be treated like every other sickness. That is the revolution that Dr. Rothschild bequeathed us.”
The guest speaker was South African born Professor Rael Strous, the medical director and chief psychiatrist of Mayanei Hayeshua’s state-of-the-art Mental Health Centre. The professor spoke about the need to straddle the sometimes hazy boundary between piety and pathology, adding that the stigma surrounding mental illness can often be more difficult than the illness itself. “Eradicating stigma and social distancing of people with mental illness must become a public health priority.”
He also emphasised the need for more resources for patients with mental illness. “While our community is known for its bikkur cholim and compassionate care for those with physical illness, patients with mental health conditions are not provided with the same standards of care. Rooms in psychiatric wards are often overcrowded, and the conditions are much worse than in other wards. In Mayanei Hayeshua, we have reversed this trend. As a community, we need to take better care of our weak.”
The second part of the evening was a Panel Event, featuring local professionals. Dr. Zev Wiener, attending psychiatrist at UCLA Medical Centre, said that while mental health conditions can be debilitating, the available treatments are constantly improving, with many patients now able to live normal, productive lives. He encouraged the community to reach out and provide support to individuals with mental illness. Rabbi Avraham Union, Dayan and Rabbinic Administrator, Rabbinical Council of California, spoke about the three roles of rabbis when it comes to mental illness: a posek, a source of support for patients and their families, and an educator involved in combatting stigma. Mrs Shirley Lebovics, author and psychotherapist, addressed the common myths surrounding shidduchim when mental health issues are involved. Mrs Debbie Fox founder and director of Magen Yeladim International, spoke about stigma and its corollary, secrecy, which lead to less access to treatment and other resources. “Evenings such as this are critical to decreasing stigma,” she said.
During the Q&A, Professor Strous’s comment that people with mental illness have a right to get married and have children drew grateful applause. Speaking from the audience, community member Jonny Ritz described his vision of bringing a facility modeled on Mayanei Hayeshua to Los Angeles: “Israel is leading the world once again, and we need to follow the lead.”
The Los Angeles event was initiated by the director of Mayanei Hayeshua’s International Department of Resource Development, Chaim Fachler: “We know that high-profile awareness evenings like this achieve the twin goals of establishing Mayanei Hayeshua at the forefront of the global mental health scene; and of raising awareness in the communities we visit. Thanks to similar events addressed by Professor Strous in New York, Toronto, Melbourne, Johannesburg, London and Manchester, Mayanei Hayeshua has become a pioneer in dealing with the special challenges facing the religious community.”