The friendship documented in the film “The Soloist” between Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless man Lopez discovers is a Juilliard-trained musical prodigy, brings to mind man’s first question to God: Am I my brother’s keeper? Lately the answer seems to be ... well, if you’re interesting enough. Had Ayers’ story been less remarkable, no doubt Lopez would have moved on.
Like Ayers, those suffering from mental illness have to contend not only with their illness, but also with the ugly stigma surrounding it. Many people with brain illnesses are educated, talented people. They are doctors of many disciplines, artists, enthusiasts, people with passions and ideas. And some of them are Jewish. The stigma that isolates them pushes colleagues (and often family) away; it eliminates opportunities, dashes hopes and ends dreams, and it leaves countless people lonely, bereft and friendless. But as “The Soloist” demonstrates, they do not have to be so alone. Stigma can be combated. And it should not be permitted at our Jewish institutions.
In Hebrew school we learn the importance of the mitzvah of bikur cholim, visiting the sick. Merely by visiting, we may change the course of another’s life. Perhaps our kindness or our reaction to an emergency will promote healing or even bring someone back from near death.
With mental illness, quick response may do the same.
Though Ayers chose not to take medication (in California, courts cannot order the mentally ill to be medicated), psychotherapeutic medications, if taken early enough, can sometimes prevent the onset of full-blown illness, ward off chronic mental illness or greatly reduce negative outcomes.
Some years ago, when studies began to suggest that Ashkenazi Jews might have a higher incidence of some brain illnesses, we made an attempt to speak at local synagogues about the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) services. Program director after program director was contacted, and no one was interested. We offered them free classes, but there wasn’t much interest there either. Ultimately, we offered our literature as a “leave behind,” should a lone congregant need us. Again, no takers. This despite the fact that according to the surgeon general, one out of four people will have a mental illness. Which means, conservatively, one in two people will be affected by a mental illness. Statistically, and through our membership, we know that Jewish families are affected. The synagogues we contacted chose not to confront the subject. We found this odd, since education, compassion and charity reverberate through Jewish law.
Last year, in planning our first Pathways to Wellness — Jewish Community Conference on Mental Health, we again contacted synagogues to find a host location. Every program director declined. Ultimately, Rabbi David Wolpe at Sinai Temple courageously took a stand against stigma, and Sinai Temple hosted the conference, where more than 400 participants heard experts on brain illnesses and recovery, and went home, armed with the ammunition of knowledge to comfort their own sick. The conference was, essentially, a mass mitzvah, which is why it was so astounding to our Jewish members that we had had to beg synagogues to find a venue.
Lopez’s singular act of bikur cholim gave Ayers some of his dignity and self-esteem back, and allowed him to again be surrounded by beautiful music, the thing he loved most. It has also led many others to reconsider their prejudices and ignorance about the mentally ill. We all know there are people with brain illnesses who are worth knowing; they are our children, our parents, brothers and sisters. Treating them as throwaways has resulted in their great representation among the 90,000 homeless of our city — and such a high proportion of the incarcerated that L.A. County Jail is now known as the largest mental institution in the country.
The question remains: As Jews, are we obligated to see them as our brothers? Certainly, minimally, we are obligated to help where we can. Allowing stigma and shame to overrule our better instincts only results in withholding comfort to the sick and adding an unnecessary and crushing weight to the already staggering burden of illness and isolation.
There are many things in this world that we are powerless to change, but, as Jews, can we who have been stigmatized to the point of near genocide permit stigma to stand in the way of information and care? And can we allow our religious institutions to do so?
Let’s do what’s in our power to relieve the suffering that we can.
Pathways to Wellness, May 17, 8:30 a.m., Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd. For more information, visit www.namila.org.
Mindy Glazer is communications director of NAMI Westside-L.A.