Oy, oy, oy, shikker is a goy! Or so I was led to believe as a child, when I heard my mother sing this little jingle. At the time I heard this, my dear father, may he rest in peace, was an active alcoholic. Since that time, I also became an alcoholic, but have been fortunate to have been in recovery for over 36 years.
In his stories of shtetl life among the Eastern European Jews, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote of Jewish alcoholics. My great uncle Ezekiel Cowl, who emigrated to America in 1902, told me of a rabbi in Lithuania who was an alcoholic. Our patriarch Abraham’s nephew, Lot, must have been an alcoholic. Otherwise, how could his daughters have known that they could get him so drunk that he would black out, and they could have their way with him?
There is no credible evidence that Jewish people are less likely than the general population to be affected by a substance use disorder, or for that matter, from any other mental health disorder. In my family, we have numerous people who are affected to a greater or lesser degree with autism. I, myself, suffered from severe depression when I was in my 20s.
We Jews don’t like to talk about these things. But if we don’t, we put ourselves at risk, for no problem can be solved if it goes unrecognized. Denial, as we have learned, is more than a river in Egypt. It is a way of dealing with painful reality by not seeing what is in plain sight.
According to carefully collected government statistics, in 2018, 19 percent of persons in the United States had a mental health disorder. This included an estimated 20 million people with alcohol use disorder, 2 million with opioid use disorder, and 8.1 million with any illicit drug use disorder.
Among adolescents aged 12 to 17, 14.4 percent (3.5 million) suffered from a major depressive episode last year. Among young adults aged 18 to 25, the percentage was similar at 13.8 percent (4.6 million). If the current population of the U.S. is 330 million people, and the percentage of Jews is about 2 percent, then there are about 6.6 million Jews residing in the U.S.
Using the 19 percent figure, if Jews are, in fact, no more or less susceptible to mental health disorders than the general population, then there are about 1.25 million Jewish people in our country at any given time suffering from a mental health disorder. This could include an estimated 400,000 alcoholics, 40,000 opioid addicts, and 160,000 persons addicted to other substances. We should, by no means, fail to mention the approximately 100,000 Jewish gambling addicts.
As a physician who has devoted his professional life to treating people with addictions and other mental health disorders, I have seen my share of both tragedy and recovery. The key to which outcome people experience is whether they get to a point at which they are willing to be honest with themselves about their situation, whatever it might be. It is a great challenge to be able to admit to having an addiction or other mental health disorder. Shame has to be overcome in order to take the necessary steps to get help. For Jews, an additional obstacle in this process is the myth within our communities that we don’t have these problems.
Fortunately, there is a lot of energy at work to break down the myth. We have The Berman Center, an intensive outpatient program in Atlanta developed through a Jewish lens, www.bermancenteratl.com. We have Jewish social service agencies such as HAMSA, www.hamsahelps.org, which are able to address these issues. We have agencies devoted to outreach and awareness, such as the Jewish Addiction Awareness Network, www.jaanetwork.org, at the national level, and The Blue Dove Foundation, www.thebluedovefoundation.org, in Atlanta, which is committed to “Quieting the Silence.”
An important dynamic in increasing the awareness of mental health and substance abuse in our communities is self-disclosure. Once Jewish people speak out openly about their own experiences with these issues, others will have the courage to acknowledge to themselves that they also are suffering and will find the resources to be helped. At the next Blue Dove community event, 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 9 at The Temple, several members of our Jewish community will share their stories of both tragedy and recovery. I want to encourage our community to support this outreach activity. By doing so many lives can be saved, and much suffering can be alleviated. Let’s use the light of Hanukah to see and experience hope. I hope to see many of you there. For more information, www.thebluedovefoundation.org/qtshanukkah.
Dr. Mike Gordon is the medical director at The Berman Center. He specializes in addiction medicine. He is a volunteer and contributor for The Blue Dove Foundation, the mission of which is to raise awareness of, end the stigma of, and educate people about mental health and substance abuse in the Jewish community. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and substance abuse, please contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness, www.nami.org, or visit The Blue Dove Foundation’s resources page www.thebluedovefoundation.org/nationalresources/