Interfaith Harris Lecture Addresses Mental Health in Congregations

By Stephanie Rex, Director of Communications and Marketing, Rodef Shalom

When it comes to creating caring congregations in which sacred space is made for all, addressing mental health issues requires taking practical steps to ensure people of all backgrounds and abilities feel welcome.

“We build our sacred spaces with whoever comes, and whatever they bring. What gift does each person have to share?” said Rabbi Sandra Cohen, this year’s featured guest speaker at the Milton E. Harris Interfaith Fund Lecture, hosted by Rodef Shalom Congregation on Friday, Feb. 8.

More than 80 clergy leaders from a variety of faith backgrounds joined together for the lunch and learn event entitled, “Who Are You Preaching To? The Truth About Mental Health in Your Pews.” In addition to the Harris Lecture event, specifically provided for local clergy leaders, Cohen spoke during several sessions to members of Rodef Shalom Congregation during a Shabbat Series on the same topic.

“Mental illness is an illness - it is not a failure.” Cohen said.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen and Rabbi Aaron Bisno

Rabbi Sandra Cohen and Rabbi Aaron Bisno

Cohen discussed the obstacles that often prevent clergy leaders or others from helping those families and individuals struggling with mental illness. The main obstacle discussed was the fear of not being able to fix the problem at hand.

“These fears of not being enough lead us to do nothing at all,” Cohen said. “Our focus should be on - what can we do? We can create a culture of caring that is welcome and open to all. People with mental illness want our help, and we as clergy need to know how to respond.”

Throughout the lecture, Cohen openly shared her own experiences with depression as a teenager, postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter, and her struggles with bipolar disorder. As a woman living with mental illness, she also described the many statistics associated with people in the U.S. living with depression and other mental health disorders. One in five Americans have a mental illness, while one in 25 adults in the U.S. experience a serious mental illness that interferes with their life in a significant way over the course of a year.

“Our narrative arc needs to be one of healing, not of cure, because in reality, there are recurrences,” Cohen said.

Cohen outlined proactive steps clergy can take to create more welcoming spaces for all. Congregations can display literature and handouts that contain information about mental health issues and where to get help. Other options include sharing the Suicide Prevention Hotline in handouts, and sharing information in bathroom stall flyers, where people have private space to take information without feeling self-conscious.

“As clergy and as fellow human beings, we can be there for each other,” Cohen said. “We can offer acts of Gemilut Hasadim (Loving Kindness), accept people with mental illness as they are, listen and be empathic.”

In another example, Cohen described a rabbi who created business cards that contained not only their personal contact information, but also mental health support contacts and how to get help if needed. Hosting support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and others also creates a more caring community where people feel welcome. Clergy can also mention mental illness in prayer in front of their congregations, just as they would other illnesses, which normalizes the issue and reduces stigma.

“Nothing is more important than ensuring that anyone and everyone who enters our building - for any reason - feels welcomed,” said Rodef Shalom Senior Rabbi Aaron Bisno. “Yet, because we can’t know someone else’s reality simply by looking at them, we have to get better at acknowledging people’s lived experiences. We need to get better at making our intentions known.”

Ron Green, retired Lutheran minister and retired Executive Director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, said that the Harris Lecture, which he has attended almost every year since the ‘90s, gave him new insight into addressing mental health issues.

“What I took away was the importance of listening to the person who is mentally ill, and that mental illness is never an illness that is cured, but there is healing,” Green said. “As clergy and as lay members of a religious community, we can be willing to accompany them on the journey.”

Rodef Shalom