Stigma: A Barrier to Rewarding Relationships

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

(As published in the Mind, Body, and Soul Section of the Jewish Press, May 25, 2012)

Why do frailty and differences in other people often scare us?  They scare us because we see a reflection of what we fear in ourselves or because we just don’t know how to respond. Since we can’t live with this discomfort for too long, we make assumptions about and apply labels to those we fear. Now that we have come to a fabricated understanding about, labeled, and summarily discounted them from the inner circles of our lives, we can relax. There’s no need to spend time or energy to discover who these people really are and confront the uncertainties that they represent. Then, we share our “knowledge” and labels with others and collectively build social fences to keep “undesirables” out. There. We have created a “stigma.”

Two Lives: Two Responses

Let’s look at how stigma works through the comparison of two lives.

Yitzchak, 22 years old, is the picture of competence and health.  Everyone knows he’ll be successful in whatever he chooses to do. He is a choice shidduch and has easily found his ”ideal” kallah.  Yitz might act impetuously now and then; but that can be seen as zrizut. He frequently texts or calls his kallah to find out where she is and what she’s doing. He’s a great catch and the phone calls show how much he cares.

Time passes and we discover that this exemplary young man often demeans his wife and beats his child behind closed doors. Shocking! No symptoms, no reason for him to seek help, and no psychiatric diagnosis. Neighbors wonder, “How can such a personable and successful man do such a thing? What did his wife do to cause him to act this way?”

Then, there’s Estie, a 27-year-old freelance writer with exemplary middot. She loves to read Miktav M’Eliyahu. Twice a week, she shops with Frady, a 75-year-old widow. Thursday is one of their shopping days. Estie checks her watch more often on Thursdays than on Mondays, for she wants to be sure not to miss her psychotherapy appointment. You see, Estie has been living with anxiety and depression since she was 15.  A studious girl, she continually endured snide remarks by the high school “in crowd.” It could have been worse. Facebook and Twitter wasn’t around in those days. Though hospitalized at 17 for 10 days, Estie has done quite well since the age of 22 with weekly therapy appointments, a decreasing dosage of anxiety medication, and a well-balanced diet.

So, Estie’s doing fairly well now. Ah, one problem. The”nasty secret” about her hospitalization and subsequent treatment is known by some in her community and by shadchanim. No one would imagine presenting her as a viable shidduch for a talmid chacham who would appreciate a marriage partner who will eagerly join him in exploring the depths of Rabbi Dessler’s works. So, every Shabbos, Estie curls up with her Miktav M’Eliyahu, as she prays that maybe, one day, she will find the man to whom she can give love, in the very way that Rabbi Dessler upholds as the highest form of loving.

Whom should we fear – Yitzchak or Estie? With whom would you rather share life’s wonders, pleasures, trials and tribulations? Why should a 10-day stay in the hospital’s psychiatric ward (10 years ago), successful weekly therapy sessions, and a couple of pink pills prevent her from meeting her bashert, who may or may not have any labels attached to him?

The Mark of Cain

People who are known to have received or are receiving mental health services are stigmatized and painted with one broad swath of paint signaling” avoidance.” It’s like the “mark of Cain.”  Therefore, they often feel compelled to vigilantly hide a part of themselves in order to be matched up, hired, or called upon for community service.

It’s a catch-22.  If someone reveals his history and condition, he may be avoided or treated differently. Yet if he hides it, then, by definition, he conceals his authentic self from others. The social pressure to hide his mental health condition effectively perpetuates the very stigma that he decries and against which he struggles. Ultimately, it can’t be fully hidden, for it’s a part of him and the ways he perceives, understands, interacts with, and contributes to the world around him. Some of the teachings of the revered Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov were inspired by his own battles against depression.

“They” Are Not All Alike

As indicated, stigma places people into convenient categories and justifies exclusion. Many people will not even consider meeting fine shidduch candidates with mental health service histories. Even those who have their own shidduch-related challenges will often discount candidates with known mental health disabilities. Their family, friends, and community leaders often support or promote this position. While this article’s author understands their concerns, she is troubled by the categorical assumptions that are made and the resulting prejudices.  Mental health conditions differ in kind and in degree.  Many people with mental health conditions have learned how to live with their disabilities, have become  supports to others, including their spouses, and raise insightful children with wonderful middot. Stigma, based in fear, is a destructive barrier to potentially fruitful relationships.

What Can You Do to Deconstruct Stigma?

  • Become inquisitive about others and their lives.
  • Approach a person you usually avoid.
  • Get to know each other at a comfortable pace. What about that person do you really appreciate? What do you share in common?
  • Ask them for their help or advice.
  • What can you learn from each other about meeting life’s challenges?
  • Tell another friend what you’ve learned from that person
  • Keep possibilities for shidduchim as open as possible.
  • Explore humility. What is it? How can you use it in your encounters with others?

Let’s work together to combat stigma and risk meeting, befriending, employing, or marrying wonderful people who we consider to be” different.”

Sharon Shapiro-Lacks is the Executive Director of Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center. Led by Jews with disabilities, Yad HaChazakah-JDEC provides guidance, resource information, advocacy, and community for people with obvious or hidden disabilities as we promote access to Jewish community life.; 646-723-3955;

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