2010 | A Beautiful Mind: Jewish Approaches to Mental Health

On Sunday, October 31, 2010, Yeshiva University’s Student Medical Ethics Society (MES) hosted its fifth annual conference, entitled A Beautiful Mind: Jewish Approaches to Mental Health. The conference provided participants with a broad foundation for the medical background needed to understand mental health, as well as the advanced medical research and practices used today to prevent and manage mental health challenges. Topics covered included suicide, depression, eating disorders, addictions, substance abuse, and more. Participants were also be introduced to an overview of the fundamental ethical dilemmas surrounding mental health, as well as how the system of Halacha (Jewish law) approaches these complex issues. In addition to gaining broad knowledge in medical, ethical, and Halachik issues of mental health, participants were able to choose from a series of specialized tracks, each geared towards in-depth analysis of the most pressing issues in the field. These tracks included Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Bullying and Harassing, Living with A Mentally Ill Family Member, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Sexual Abuse. The individual sessions were guided by leading rabbis, physicians, and mental health professionals all of whom are experts with ample experience in their fields of mental health, ethics, and Halacha. In addition, there was a special track geared to Rabbis, in order that they will be able to ask their individual questions to the leaders in Halacha. Furthermore, exclusively for students, Dr. Pelcovitz and Rav Willig led a discussion pertaining to mental health as it applies to students. In addition, there was a track that consisted of emotional stories told by students dealing with mental health challenges. Finally, the conference also hosted, for the first time, a high school track, where Mrs. Blumenthal and Dr. Nissel explained the importance of understanding mental health challenges as it pertains to teenagers. The conference was a wonderful opportunity to explore the complex and pressing issues, and to interact with leading rabbis, physicians, and lawyers in the area of medical ethics. Pre-registration was required and was open to all those who had an interest in broadening their knowledge and understanding of ethics in mental health. Students, teachers, rabbis, mental health professionals, physicians, and laymen were welcome.

Session Descriptions

Plenary I: Eating Disorders

Esther Altmann Ph.D. , Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser , Karen Rosewater M.D.

Moderators: Dr. Tia PowellDuring the first plenary session, participants will be exposed to some of the symptoms that characterize the eating disorders that permeate the Jewish community. Clinicians in this field will present some of their findings, which were obtained via research, case studies and experience. Topics to be covered include issues regarding shidduchim (getting “set up” for the purpose of marriage), and the pressure that this may bear upon a family coping with a family member’s eating disorder, as well as tension that may arise when clinicians and halacha (Jewish law) come into conflict. Fasting as it pertains to one who is struggling with an eating disorder, the concept of bal tashchit (the halachic ordinance of not wasting food), and the struggle of satisfying the commandment of kibbud av va’em (honoring ones mother and father) are a few other examples of topics to be discussed.

Plenary II: Addiction and Substance Abuse

Trish Attia Ph.D., LCSW , David Pelcovitz Ph.D. , Rabbi Abraham Twerski M.D.

Moderators: Rabbi Dr. Richard WeissParticipants will walk away from this session with a well-rounded understanding of some of the halachic and ethical considerations that govern these areas of mental health. Some of the issues that will be explored include: the ethics of ending treatment prematurely for patients who cannot pay for rehabilitation treatment; practicing medicine without supervision, as well as the ethics involved in treating a patient when the therapist knows of a better-suited clinician for the person. From a halachic standpoint, this session will discuss the laws of a choleh (sick person) and whether an addict falls into this category; the laws of lifnei iver (placing a stumbling block before a blind person) as they pertain to an addict drinking on Purim; the laws of kibbud av va’em (honoring one’s father and mother) as they pertain to an addict parent, and more. This session will conclude with a discussion about factors associated with increased risk in substance abuse and what are practical steps parents and the greater Jewish community can take to lower the number of teens at risk?

Plenary III: Suicide and Depression

Harvey Kranzler M.D. , Rabbi Hershel Schachter , Dean Victor Schwartz M.D.

Moderators: Dr. Edward BurnsThis session is designed to explore the biological, psychological, and social factors involved when a person takes his or her life. Preventive measures as well as risk assessment will be addressed, in order to educate participants how to recognize a potentially-suicidal person. The developmental issues that college students specifically grapple with which put them at risk for committing suicide, as well as the preventive measures a university can take in order to decrease the chances of suicide, will also be discussed. Finally, halachic issues raised by these challenges and related halachic and ethical concerns (such as physician assisted suicide) will also be presented.

Breakout Sessions

Breakout 1: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Rabbi Mark Dratch , Rabbi Yona Reiss

Moderators: Kaylee Kampf
In this informative session about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD, Rabbi Dr. Barry Holzer will address several ethical issues pertaining to ADHD and its challenges. Some of the issues that will be raised include responsibilities of parents and principals to children with ADHD, candidness vs. masking in shidduchim (getting “set up” for the purpose of marriage)and the ethics of universal full-time Beis Medrash for young adults with ADHD.

Breakout 2: Bullying and Harassing

Rabbi Barry Holzer M.D.

Moderators: Rachel Blinick
Bullying receives a great deal of attention in the popular media, but its significant medical and psychological implications may be poorly understood. This presentation will review the significant short and long term impacts on victims’ mental and physical health of bullying, harassment and social exclusion. Suggestions for educational, medical and mental health practitioners will be included.

Breakout 3: Child Abuse

Rabbi Jonathan Schwartz Psy.D.

Moderators: Ben Recca
This session will discuss the incidence of child abuse in Orthodox Jewish families, schools, shuls, camps and community, its halachic definition and the halachically mandated responses, including issues of mesirah and arka’ot (reporting to the civil authorities).

Breakout 4: Living with a Mentally Disabled Family Member

Aliza Blumenthal , Chaim Nissel Psy.D.

Moderators: Shoshana Blechner
People with mental illness live with hope, isolation, fear and sometimes despondency. What is the impact on family and/or relatives and at what point can a family member say – Enough?

Breakout 5: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Various Students and Clinicians TBA

Moderators: Jonathan Stern
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD, is often most misunderstood and masked in the Orthodox Jewish community as piety, chumra (stringencies) and frumkeit (religious level). In his presentation, Rabbi Dr. Schwartz will provide an in-depth understanding of the symptom, picture and thought processes associated with the different forms of OCD as well as certain guidelines from the psychological literature as well as Jewish sources to help distinguish between OCD and piety. Specific and creative Frum-friendly application of core Cognitive Behavioral Therapy technique for OCD will be presented, along with case example

Breakout 6: Question and Answer Session for Rabbis

Rona Novick Ph.D.

Moderators: Shimon Farber
Led by Yeshiva University’s prominent faculty members, Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Dean Victor Schwartz, this session will be a Q&A forum exclusively for Rabbis, smicha students and graduate psychology students to inquire about issues that they face both on a day-to-day basis, and on rare occasions. Personal case studies will also be presented by Rabbi Schachter.

Breakout 7: Specialized Student Track

Rabbi Hershel Schachter , Dean Victor Schwartz M.D.

Moderators: Daniel Elefant
Led by Yeshiva University’s prominent faculty members, Dr. David Pelcovitz and Rav Mordechai Willig, this session will be a Q&A forum for students to discuss and further understand the complexities that are attached to dating and the stigma of mental illness in the Orthodox Jewish world.

Breakout 8: Specialized High School Track

David Mandel

Moderators: Jillian Login
Geared specifically and exclusively towards the youngest members of our audience, high schoolers will be privy to hear first-hand accounts from members of the community who have struggled with serious mental illnesses. Following these accounts, the Director of the Yeshiva University Counseling Center, Dr. Chaim Nissel, will discuss how to cope with mental illness challenges during the years following high school graduation.

Breakout 9: Stories of Struggle

David Pelcovitz Ph.D. , Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Moderators: Harry Portman
Conference participants will be privy to hear first-hand accounts from members of the community who have struggled with serious mental illnesses. The young adults will speak about the emotional roller coaster they have faced, and how they have chosen to address them. In addition, they will speak about what they have done to increase awareness in the Jewish community. Following these accounts, a mental health professional will discuss how to cope with mental illness challenges and how the Jewish community should be addressing them.