Atlanta native and Temple Sinai member Erin Clements struggled for years with heroin and other opioids.
Her addiction worsened after her mother died of cancer. But after her sister’s wedding, Clements decided to seek help.
Before 2016, life for Jennifer Greenberg and her husband, Adam, seemed great. They had high-earning jobs, took frequent vacations and enjoyed their friends’ company. Adam was fiercely devoted to his family and his colleagues.
But what people didn’t see were his bouts of depression. Jennifer tried to help and suggested therapy, but she was sworn to secrecy — until Adam killed himself.
Those were two of the stories presented about addiction and mental health at “Quieting the Silence,” the Blue Dove Foundation’s debut program, held at Temple Sinai in partnership with The Berman Center, Jewish Family & Career Services and its HAMSA addiction program, Sinai’s Nefesh mental health program, Jewish Path to Recovery, and Derech Transitional Living on Thursday, May 24.
Berman Center CEO Justin Milrad and Executive Director Alyza Berman, who launched Blue Dove, organized the program, which drew more than 200 people.
More than 64,000 Americans fatally overdosed last year, most from opioids. Over 170,000 people are believed to have used heroin for the first time. Meanwhile, one in five Americans has some mental illness, and nearly 60 percent of adults with mental illness did not receive health services in 2017.
“What we know is that mental illness and substance abuse occur in the Jewish community whether we want to acknowledge it or not, and what we know is that it occurs in the Jewish community at relatively the same rate as the general community. We are not immune. We are not protected,” said Dan Arnold, the JF&CS director of clinical services. “The trend is stigma and silence. … But we are bucking that by saying treatments need to happen, community needs to happen, it’s real, and we have to address it.”
Marci Talarico’s three children suffer from binge eating, depression, drug addiction and anxiety, but she refuses to keep her struggle a secret. Today she has numbers for therapists, doctors and psychologists in case any of them relapse.
She is one of the few who are not afraid to talk about their family issues.
“I think the Jewish community is coming to the table on mental health and substance abuse,” Jewish Path to Recovery founder Eric Miller said during a panel discussion led by Berman Center program director Daniel Epstein. “I think what people have noticed is that in their own lives and own families they have been experiencing substance abuse and mental health issues and have wondered where to go.”
Epstein noted a gap between the time that a person or a family recognizes a problem and the moment a patient receives treatment.
“I think it’s the judgment that we put on families and someone, but I think the best thing to do if you know someone is not to shame them, but to approach them with love and ask a question,” Berman said.
OCD specialist and therapist Josh Spitalnick said: “One of the things I would recommend for anyone battling this disease is to seek out specific services that are online that are science- and academic-based. I think a way to increase that access to care is to identify legitimate websites that have really good providers.”
When people talk about mental health, the focus tends to be on the individual, but the family also faces challenges, Arnold said. “It’s crucial to reach out to the family system to treat individuals holistically because what we strive to do is to create a connection, boundaries and support. … We have to engage the family.”
Miller said: “I also think it is important to provide a lot of education to the families. There is a way to intervene, but it is important to have a plan and understand what that is before you do so and perhaps find a professional to do that. I think we need to come out of the closet with people who are ready to help support the family because the family is as clueless as anybody.”
Denial is the correct term for the conflict, said The Berman Center’s medical director, Michael Gordon. “For a person with an addiction, there are two stages to denial. The first is ‘What drug problem? What drinking problem? I don’t have a problem. I am fine.’ But past that, there is ‘OK, I drank too much but can handle it on my own.’
“The family’s denial is ‘I don’t have a problem. He is the one with the problem. I will be fine.’ In a way, that is obviously true. But what we need to do as a community and as a culture is to break that down.”
Epstein said some types of care may be underrepresented in treating people with addiction or substance abuse.
“In most of our training, you start medical first and then go social second, but if there are any issues with mood or anxiety, one of the first things you want to find out is whether something organic or biological is going on, and that is often controlled by a primary care doctor, psychiatrist or physician,” Spitalnick said.
“Quieting the Silence” was a successful event, Berman said. “It was wonderful to have the community come together to learn more about mental health and substance abuse. We were able to start the difficult conversations of what the issues are and how our community can address them.”
The Berman Center plans to hold a similar night of education in the fall that will focus on youths and to present many more events that break the shame of mental health and substance abuse.
“Our goal,” Berman said, “is to bring awareness to the community that mental illness and substance abuse do not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or socio-economic status.”
Authors note: Clements is currently married with one child and has devoted herself to helping other women fight substance abuse while working as the women’s director for a sober living program.