By: Etan Neiman and Akiva Clair | Features  | 

Current and Former YU Students Join Forces to Fight Mental Health Stigma and Inequality in The Jewish Community

In late 2014, Dr. Ariel Mintz (Yeshiva College ‘11) was approached by Nathan Gilson, a Jewish young adult with a heavy heart. Gilson’s friend had just died from suicide. He was shocked, never realizing the extent of the anguish of someone he cared about. This close encounter with a tragic case of mental illness inspired Gilson to ask Dr. Mintz, “Is there any way you could provide an outlet for those in our community to talk about their difficulties?” Taken a little aback, Dr. Mintz stored this encounter away. 

A few months later, Dr. Mintz was in the middle of conducting treatments for a middle-aged woman with ongoing clinical depression since early adolescence when out of nowhere she proudly declared, “I have cancer!” For the first time in her life, she felt genuine sympathy from her parents and community. People began making her meals and checking in on her. “Never with my psychiatric admissions had I so much as received a phone call from someone concerned for my well-being.”

None of this was right. In fact, it was very very wrong. A young adult stunned to see his friend be taken by suicide. A woman thrilled with her cancer diagnosis so she could finally get some emotional support. These were just two examples of what Dr. Mintz was seeing more and more of: people being failed by society’s stigmatic views and left to cope with their mental illnesses alone.

Due to the perception - particularly prevalent in the Jewish community - that there is some type of inferiority or lack of equality in those with mental illness as opposed to a physical sickness, the mentally ill remain silent. They are often too ashamed and scared of how the Jewish community will view them to get treatment, let alone find a much-needed support system. Without medical or emotional help, their illnesses only get worse. The Jewish people, who pride themselves on their strong communities, are failing its members who need them most.   

So, armed with Gilson, a small group of supporters and his desire to help the Jewish community face the mental health stigma, Dr. Mintz founded Refuat Hanefesh and officially launched in August of 2016 (while later obtaining 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, nonprofit status).

From Refuat Hanefesh’s humble beginnings, the organization has since exploded. Backed by big name advisors - such as Dr. David Pelcovitz (the Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration of Yeshiva University) and Dr. Bella Schanzer (the Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs in the Baylor-Menninger Department of Psychiatry, Medical Director of the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic, as well as the Brown Foundation Chair in Psychiatry) - Refuat Hanefesh’s offerings now include a robust blog, active social media pages, a peer-to-peer support room, monthly Live Conversations streamed on YouTube and Facebook, an annual Creative Expression Contest and much more in the works.

Their blog has produced well over 100 original articles authored by both mental health professionals and people with first-hand experience of their own or a loved one’s mental illness. The Creative Expression Contest is an opportunity for anybody to submit a creative piece addressing one of three prompts or any mental health topic they feel passionate about. This means submissions can be articles, poems, songs, videos, pictures or any format the submitter can imagine. To date, over 10,000 unique visitors spanning six continents have taken advantage of Refuat Hanefesh’s offerings.

Yeshiva University students’ imprint, both current and alumni, is littered across Refuat Hanefesh. In the fall of 2016, Dr. Mintz brought Shanee Markovitz (Stern ‘20) on board to help get Refuat Hanefesh’s message and offerings out there. Inspired by the loss of her mother to suicide, Markovitz methodologically worked to expand the organization’s team and outreach before settling into an advisory role in order to focus on school. Other YU connections on the Administrative Board include Director of Operations Avi Gordon (Yeshiva College ‘11), Editor-in-Chief and co-author of this article Etan Neiman (Syms ‘17), Head of Social Media Talia Korn (Stern ‘19), Head of Engagement Moshe Winograd (RIETS ‘11), Head of Marketing Chaim Ancier (Wurzweiler ‘12), and Head of Creative Contest Netanel Paley (Yeshiva College ‘18). With four additional YU alumni or educators serving on the Advisory Board (Dr. Stephen Glicksman, Dr. David Pelcovitz, Rabbi Dani Bauer, and Rabbi Dovid Zirkind), it is clear the impact YU students and alumni have had on making this organization go.

Why have these students and alumni banded together to fight the stigma-driven mental health inequality? According to Dr. Mintz, “We’ve got to address this perception, which is simply incompatible with reality, that there is a deficiency in those with a mental illness. People fear that if word gets out that they have a mental illness, they will be looked down upon, the shidduch suggestions won’t come, or their friends will be turned off. This leads them to at best be left alone to cope with their illness and at worst refuse to acknowledge their illness and get treatment.” Markovitz concurs that “mental illness in the Jewish community needs to be addressed, and Refuat Hanefesh is not afraid to do so and enable others to join in that effort. It provides a safe space for people to support one another in their experiences.” Why does Korn, already saddled with the famously grueling YU schedule, make the time to lead Refuat Hanefesh’s social media effort? “Providing resources for those searching for understanding through the turmoil of mental illness has the power to save a life, so no matter how busy my schedule is, I make the time.”

Nobody is exempt from speaking up. The way the stigma evaporates is by so many people with a mental illness speaking their truths that society has no choice but to accept them as the equals they are. The way the stigma halts is by those without a mental illness not just being fine with fighting for mental health equality, but feeling that it is their moral obligation to. Fueled by their YU influence, Refuat Hanefesh is making ending the mental health stigma and providing support to those with a mental illness a reality.