Sermon 20th January 2017
Mental Health Awareness Shabbat
People never tell me they think they might come off their insulin because although they are diabetic they are going to try and cope without. People never say “we hadn’t wanted to tell you that our child had a broken leg so we were just encouraging them to keep living a normal life in the hope no one would notice and they would grow out of it”. So why in 2018 when the government statistics tell us that one in four adults will or have struggled with a mental health condition do we possibly think that somehow mental illness is something that we can keep hoping will go away, that we will wake up feeling stronger tomorrow or that our children will grow out of or that we need to keep our partners out of the public domain because they might be embarrassing?
Whether numbers are rising or we are just getting better at diagnosing people, whether the pace of life and social media is to blame or we are labelling conditions we never had language for, we cannot harden our heart to it, learn to ignore it, or live with it. We have to acknowledge it in ourselves and in others in order to get the help we need.
In this and last week’s Torah portion we see Pharaoh’s heart being hardened to the plagues. Each time he thinks one will break him and he will let the Israelites go
|כז וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה; וְלֹא אָבָה, לְשַׁלְּחָם.||27 God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.|
The reality of the plague, the plight they have to endure becomes part of society and they live with it and so Pharaoh changes his mind, resolving to make do with the plague rather than battle with the systemic change needed to adapt the way society works, change his reliance on slave labour, his way of life, or the structure of society with its underclass.
I hate the theology of this episode of Torah with a God that sends plagues as punishments. It isn’t the behaviour of an all-loving God. However I feel the plagues can give a powerful back drop which remind us, should we have the gift of five minutes of respite to need the reminder, that the world is hard, that we live feeling like we are constantly being tested but that we cannot turn a blind eye, allow it to continue, ignore it, harden our heart to it and keep going as the Egyptians did. Rather we have to remember the promises life once held, of what we thought we could achieve, remember where we came from and where we were heading and work together as a community to overcome it.
As I walked out of my office after a late night on Thursday, I came down the stairs to the foyer where a guest from our winter shelter had chosen to sleep, though a little draughty he has decided it was more private than with the other guests in the main hall. As I made my way out of the shul to my home and family I bid him a cheery “goodnight” and “sleep well” with a little wave as the door slammed shut. I stopped in the car park, froze with my own words with disbelief. Surely this can never feel normal, surely I cannot let this feel ok, there shouldn’t have to be 15 people asleep in the shul, let alone one in the foyer. We cannot get used to this, we have to campaign for proper solutions. That patting ourselves on the back for having a winter shelter rather than being angered by the lunacy of a developed country in the 21st century having people for whom this is their only option in life is the reality of what it means to harden our hearts.
Yet I fear our hearts are being hardened to so many realities, not least to those that concern the voices of the quietest or because of a perceived stigma attached have been silenced. Perhaps that’s why JAMI have given us this Shabbat. Not just so the words “mental health” are spoken from the bimah but because they are all too aware of the heart hardening which has occurred in the world of mental illness, when we live with it as individuals, families and in society rather than say these statistics need to speak for themselves and give us a voice to speak out with.
To be breaking the taboo only enough to accept it as a common reality in our lives yet not being aware enough of it to be demanding. To be shouting that our over stretched CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) means kids are left on waiting lists as they struggle through life and fall further into the symptoms which blight their lives and stop them living to their own potential. Our hearts are hardened which mean we accept the prescription for anti-depressants without insisting it comes with talking therapies too because there simply aren’t the practitioners or the funding available. Our hearts are hardened meaning we watch partners struggling to care for their loved one while both become more and more isolated as the dementia of one makes leaving the house for both of them, let alone socialising so difficult.
The list is endless, the hearts hardened, the acceptance that the cat might be out of the bag, we are owning our mental health and all its challenges like we are the plague of cancer but not insisting that the same structures, diagnostics, treatments and research exist. We are still in the dark over mental health.
Let’s be part of shining that light, by demanding, insisting for the structures, whilst supporting and strengthening each other.
|ל וַיָּקָם פַּרְעֹה לַיְלָה, הוּא וְכָל-עֲבָדָיו וְכָל-מִצְרַיִם, וַתְּהִי צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה, בְּמִצְרָיִם: כִּי-אֵין בַּיִת, אֲשֶׁר אֵין-שָׁם מֵת.||30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.|
It takes Pharaoh to lose his own son, for every Egyptian household to experience the loss of a child before they stop turning a blind eye, hardening their hearts and accepting the plague as a way of maintaining the status quo. Mental illness has already cost society at large and our own community too many of our sons and daughters. We need to recognise our own hearts have become hardened to the reality that exists. We need to insist more money is spent, more resources made available, more treatment given, that no taboo silences us but rather than we all speak out before any more lives are lost.