Stop the stigma
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Stop the stigma

Online forum faces substance abuse and mood disorders in the Jewish community — and offers help

Lianne Forman and her husband, Etiel, compete for the OU Impact Accelerator’s support for CCSA last year. They won it.
Lianne Forman and her husband, Etiel, compete for the OU Impact Accelerator’s support for CCSA last year. They won it.

The Jewish community isn’t immune to the problems that beset the world around it.

Specifically, Jews can develop addictions to alcohol, to drugs, to behaviors. Jews can have mood disorders. Jews can kill themselves. Jews are not so special that we are immune to the issues that plague the rest of the world.

Dena Croog and Lianne Forman, who both live in Teaneck, each has struggled with these issues. Ms. Croog has bipolar disorder, and one of Ms. Forman’s daughters had a substance abuse issue. Both women decided to go public a few years ago, reasoning that the stigma that they were fighting only made the problems worse. The more they could fight stigma — the more they could get the community to understand that many people in the community live with these issues, even if they don’t see it or believe it — the better the chance that they and everyone else could confront the problems and overcome them.

Ms. Croog founded Refa’enu. Ms. Forman and her husband, Etiel, founded CCSA, which stands for Communities Confronting Substance Abuse. Both are nonprofits that work within the Jewish community; Refa’enu focuses on people with mood disorders and CCSA on substance abuse. Last year, the two organizations, which often work together, created a workshop where clinicians and other interested people could get together to talk about problems and solutions.

This year, such an in-person gathering is impossible, but the way the internet transcends time and space presented other possibilities. On Sunday, October 18, the two organizations will present a forum they’re calling “Finding Mental Wellness and Recovery Together.” (See box for details.)

“We weren’t interested in a typical Zoom event,” Ms. Forman said. “We feel that people are Zoomed out. We did an online event in May about anxiety and covid; that was a year after the first one we did. We thought that we could do a live one in October, when things would be back to normal.”

But they’re not. So she and Ms. Croog rethought and came up with a new format.

“We wanted to go for something unique,” she said. “We took six very powerful topics, and created discussions between three people on each of them.” The topics — each discussed in a separate workshop — are alcohol and Jewish ritual, mood disorders, self-harm and suicidality, substance addiction and recovery, behavior addictions, and ADHD medications and their relationship to substance use disorders.

Each workshop includes a clinician “who can discuss the medical side of things,” someone who has experienced the issue first-hand, “which we think is compelling and powerful,” and more or less a wild card, someone who has some other angle of insight. For example, Ms. Forman said, the workshop on addictions will include “a clinician, someone who is in recovery from a gambling addiction, and Rabbi Zvi Gluck of Amudim, who has had experience with internet and sex addictions.” (Amudim is the New York-based nonprofit that Rabbi Gluck created; it offers case management for families with members struggling with drug, sexual, and other forms of abuse.) In each workshop, the three speakers will talk to each other; a question-and-answer period will follow.

“None of these workshops will be easy,” Ms. Forman said. But they’re important.

No one can go to all six of the workshops; there are only two sessions. But it all will be recorded and available online once it’s over.

David Drapkin, left, Dena Croog, and Miriam Ament

The intensity of the program will be leavened by laughter; it will include a performance by Sarge, a Black and Jewish comedian who has his own history of addiction and recovery, and is a popular inspirational speaker. “We were a bit nervous about opening with comedy, but Sarge is much more than a comedian,” Ms. Forman said. “And we need a little levity.”

Dena Croog is excited about the format of the forum that she and Ms. Forman worked on together. It’s unusual, she said.

“Having topics spoken about from different angles is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while,” Ms. Croog said. “It gives a fuller picture of the topic. These are important issues to understand, and they shouldn’t be seen from just one perspective. They are complicated.”

It’s particularly important to include the first-person part of the story, she continued, and that’s what makes the program unusual. “We are getting the personal views of the people who have been in the trenches,” she said. “People who have been at the heart of the issue.”

Ms. Croog will tell her own story, and the third presenter at that workshop will be “a friend of mine who will be speaking from the perspective of someone who had a friend who had a mood disorder that first manifested in high school.” It’s important to say that mood disorders often make themselves visible during adolescence or early adulthood, “and kids need to know what do for their friends.”

David Drapkin is a social worker; he’s also the executive clinical director of Strive Health, a Paramus-based outpatient addiction and mental health facility. “We’re in the process of developing a Jewish track for people who have addiction, so we can have a targeting group,” he said. It’s not that Jews develop or maintain or leave or heal from addictions differently than other people do, he said, but “it is important to be around others who understand and have a sense of shared experience.” Shared vocabulary and assumptions help.

It’s not just for Jews; it’s not only about religion or ethnicity. “We have two other groups opening as well,” Mr. Drapkin said. One is for first responders, and the other for members of the LGBT community. “Clinicians have been training to work in the specifics of these cultures,” he said. “It helps people feel safe and understood.

“From the Jewish perspective, that kind of cultural identity often is particularly relevant, because there is a lot of stress and stigma in being Jewish” and having an addiction, so “it can help get the person into a place of insight and empowerment” if there is a group specific to that culture, and understands the assumptions that come from both the community itself and the outside world.

That’s true for all Jews, Mr. Drapkin added, “from secular to Orthodox. The group is open to anyone identifying as Jewish. It is up to the client to self-identify. The hope is that people will find that their Jewish identity transcends how frum they are.”

On Sunday morning, Mr. Drapkin will be the clinician in the discussion on behavior addictions; that includes but is not restricted to “tech gadgets, pornography, gambling, and shopping,” he said. “One of the things I hope to convey is that addiction is an inner psychological experience that really makes it somewhat irrelevant what the drug of choice is. There are of course neurological and chemical aspects” that vary when the drug is a substance, something that goes into a body, but “on a purely cognitive and behavioral level, these addictions have a very similar pattern and process that anyone with any kind of addiction will go through.

“It is simply not fair to think that these addictions are not as present or as challenging because there are no physical drugs involved.”

There are times when addictions to substances and to other kinds of behavior can “co-occur, just as depression and anxiety can,” he added. And there is another danger — “they are less obvious to the persons themselves, and less obvious to the people around them, so they are a little easier to hide,” Mr. Drapkin said.

“Jewish people seem to have a slightly higher proclivity toward gambling addiction,” Mr. Drapkin said. “It might be because it feels like gambling is a little less stigmatized in the Jewish community.

“Some men feel that it is a male pastime, and not harmful. But when it becomes addictive, it can be very harmful. It has a high rate of suicidality. When people have lost a lot of money, they feel very hopeless.”

Does that mean that women are less likely than men to become addicted to gambling? “It does seem to be tied up to masculinity in general, but women have been catching up when it comes to gambling addiction and gambling disorders,” Mr. Drapkin said. “That is particularly true when they’re online,” and the pandemic has driven many people to the internet.

Miriam Ament will give the first-person perspective in the suicide and self-harm workshop. “Over 15 years ago, I was hospitalized three times for depression,” Ms. Ament said. “I faced a lot of stigma.” Also a lot of ignorance and insensitivity. For example, “one of my then closest friends called me up during my second hospitalization, and said, ‘I only want to talk to you when you are happy,’” she said.

“And then I never talked to her again.”

Internalizing the stigma, “I barely talked about any of this, even with the people who knew about it, until about six years ago I had the chance to tell Glenn Close.” The actress, who has siblings with mental disorders, has become a strong advocate for breaking down the stigma surrounding those disorders. “I realized that if I could tell a stranger about that, I could do it in the Jewish community. So I left my career” — she has a master’s degree in organizational psychology and most recently she’d been a senior paralegal — “to raise awareness about the stigma.”

Ms. Ament, who lives in Chicago, started a nonprofit organization called No Shame on U; although the group was active in the ways that used to be possible in the Before Times — marching in parades, talking at meetings, meeting people in small gatherings, talking face to face — it’s been able to grow the internet presence it already had.

The need for No Shame on U — the need to break down the sense of shame that keeps people from talking about their situations and gaining strength and wisdom from the community and the experts — is great, and it has not waned during the pandemic.

The group is Jewish, but it’s inclusive. “We do a variety of programs for different segments of the community,” Ms. Ament said. “Everyone is welcome.” Before covid shut everything down, “We had some women-only programs, where women from the Orthodox community might be more comfortable. The food at our meeting was strictly kosher, and none of them are on Shabbat.”

The group has adapted to the pandemic. “In August and September, we did a bunch of programs with synagogues, talking about Elul,” Ms. Ament said. Elul is the spiritually ripe month that leads into the month of holidays that is Tishrei. “September was Suicide Prevention Month, so we talked about Elul falling during September. We certainly bring in a Jewish perspective.

“We have done over 90 programs since covid,” she continued. “We have shifted gears.” But her basic mission — to help break down the stigma that makes it even harder for people suffering from suicidal ideation to battle that craving for self-harm — hasn’t changed, and it is that mission that she’ll explore and describe at the forum on Sunday.


Save the Date

What: An online forum, Mental Health and Addiction in the Jewish Community

When: On Sunday, October 18, from 9 to 11 a.m.

When: It’s on Zoom

How much: Free. (Donations are not necessary but would be gratefully accepted.)

How to get the link: Both Refa’enu and CCSA have the Zoom meeting info on their websites. Refa’enu is at refaenu.org. CCSA is at www.time2talkaddiction.org. Both sites have the Zoom links in their event pages.

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