Healing the Body and the Spirit

Refuat Hanefesh Seeks to Destigmatize Mental Illness in the Jewish Community

Despite the tremendous gains made in recent decades in destigmatizing mental illness, the term “mental illness” still carries a great weight of shame and humiliation, forcing people to hide their afflictions and not seek the help they need.

Ariel Mintz ’11YC

Ariel Mintz ’11YC wants to change that attitude, especially within the Jewish community, which is why in August 2016, he and a team of YU alumni began Refuat Hanefesh, whose mission is to decrease mental illness stigma in the Jewish community through conversation and education, while providing a safe place for those affected to seek support and advice.

Mintz, who grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, believes that the Orthodox Jewish community faces unique challenges when it comes to mental illness: “It is particularly difficult,” he noted, “to confront the stigma and find confidants or professionals who understand their unique values and way of life.”

The origin of Refuat Hanefesh, in many ways, is rooted in his childhood. “I grew up as a middle child and never had much of an opportunity to speak,” he explained. “I quickly learned to embrace the role of being a listener and not having to input my own comments into every conversation. These skills and the satisfaction of helping people work through problems motivated me to pursue a career where I could practice this daily.”

He hadn’t originally intended to go to YU, even though his father, Marshall Mintz ’71YC, had attended; instead, he was going to follow his siblings to the University of Maryland. “However, I realized that if I wanted the opportunity to excel in both my Judaic and secular studies there really was ‘nowhere but here.’ YU gave me access to some of the greatest Torah and general studies scholars.” In fact, Mintz states unequivocally that “my time at YU was truly the greatest years of my life, and I have never regretted the decision to go there.”

He was a busy man at YU.  He was the first person to be a teaching assistant for both a shiur at the Mazer School of Talmudic Studies and in the biology department, bringing Torah and madda together. He held board positions in several clubs and was chair of the student life committee. “I had tremendous role models who gave of their time and skills to help me accomplish everything I was able to do,” he noted.

He also had the great good fortune to meet his future wife, Avital (Abir) ’12S, who was attending Stern College for Women and also pursuing a BA in Psychology. “Thanks to the YU shuttle, I was able to date her and eventually marry her, and now we have two wonderful children, Yaakov and Nava.”

At YU, he had every intention of becoming a psychologist, but after a conversation with Dr. Victor Schwartz, former dean of student affairs, he decided to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist. “This decision increased my skill set to treat all types of patients, including using medications, electroconvulsive therapy and several other treatment modalities that would not be available to me without going to medical school.”

He attended Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine in Rochester, Michigan, attracted by “the small class size of 50, the warm environment that was apparent on interview day, and the ability to live in a smaller Jewish community where it is easier to get to know people and feel that you are making an impact in the community.” He is currently a licensed physician working to complete his training in general psychiatry at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, with plans to subspecialize in child and adolescent psychiatry.

The impulse to create Refuat Hanefesh began in 2013, during his third year of medical school, when he observed how many Jews were in the psychiatric ward and how they were hospitalized longer because their treatments were not making them better. “I had never before met or even heard of a Jew with serious mental illness. I asked them why, and invariably the answer I got was that if they opened up to the people in their religious community, it would ruin their family’s reputation.”

He was both shocked and moved to action by what he learned. “These people had no one to speak with and were increasing their suffering because of the stigma that we created against mental illness,” he said. “I decided then that I had to not only work to decrease the stigma but also create Refuat Hanefesh where they could seek support anonymously without fear of being judged.”

The original staff consisted of just Mintz and his wife Avital, who felt that “there is nothing more fulfilling than being able to be a part of an organization that is helping people in a way that has never been done before. To teach tolerance, learn about people’s struggles, and help people feel they are not alone is our goal. It is our hope that Hashem helps us bring awareness to Klal Yisrael and comfort to those in need of a Refuat Hanefesh.” Over time they were able to pull together a team, many of them fellow YU alumni committed to making a difference in the field of mental health services for the Jewish community.

Shanee Markovitz, who will attend Stern College in the fall of 2017, was quick to join the board after Ariel reached out to her after reading about her own exposure to mental illness. She noted that “the time has come for this stigma surrounding mental illness to come to an end, for lives to stop being lost due to lack of support and acceptance, and for the educational gap we face regarding mental health and illness to be filled permanently. For me, working on Refuat Hanefesh has also been part of my healing journey and a tremendous honor.”

Aryeh Goldberg ’12YC, who knew Mintz from their pre-med days at Yeshiva College, joined after experiencing firsthand the distress of a Jewish family where the son, suffering from acute psychosis, was being treated by a physician unable to understand the cultural and religious nuances of the son’s upbringing. “As I advanced through my training, I knew that I would be looking for meaningful ways to address the stigma of mental illness within the Orthodox community, so I was very excited to reconnect with Ariel after learning about his incredible work in this area.”

Rabbi Dani Bauer ’13R, ’13A, who is a marriage advisor for Refuat Hanefesh, hopes “to break the fear of going to therapy. If we can do that, then we have the opportunity to stem the tide of divorce and unhappy marriages with better use of couples and family counseling. And we need a strong push from our congregational rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva to make getting help commonplace before a problem arises.”

Other YU alumni connected with the organization are Stephen Glicksman ’91YC (Intellectual Disabilities Advisor), Zahava Rothschild ’15S, ’15A (Content Editor), Rabbi Dovid Zirkind ’09YC, ’12R (Head of Jewish Content) and Chaim Ancier ’12W (Child Mental Health Advisor).

As with any new enterprise, it takes times to build the business. At the moment, the organization is self-funded, which Mintz recognizes is not a long-term sustainable model. They now accept donations on the website and are planning a large fundraising campaign in the near future.

But Refuat Hanefesh has already started having an impact. “We have received numerous emails thanking us for doing what we are doing. We have heard from family members and individuals spanning the spectrum of mental illness. Our support room is beginning to take off with people seeking advice and guidance from both professionals and others who have been in similar situations. We have received many pledges from people vowing to change the way they view mental illness and how they act towards people that have mental illness. People have pledged greater care, support and praying for those who are sick. Every small change someone makes increases the chances of saving someone’s life who may be contemplating suicide while also increasing life satisfaction for that person.”

Looking out over the next five years, Mintz first wants to make Refuat Hanefesh a household name for any Jewish mental health professional. “We want mental illness to be a topic of conversation in shuls, schools and at Shabbos tables. We envision teaching people how to improve their resiliency and overall mental wellbeing.”

Three years out, Mintz sees Refuat Hanefesh being active in the schools, working with teaching staff and students on recognizing a mental illness, eliminating bullying and reducing the risk of students developing addictions.

In five years, Mintz wants to offer telepsychiatry and teletherapy to increase access and allow people not to have to worry about stigma. “Currently, over half of people with mental illness do not get treatment,” he noted. “We hope to eliminate this treatment gap within our target population. By getting people the help they need, we could reduce their suffering and improve their lives.”

“We want people to come to Refuat Hanefesh to educate themselves and develop a greater understanding for mental illness,” Mintz stated. “The need for changing how mental health is viewed in the Jewish community is apparent, and the excitement to begin to change that mindset is palpable. We intend to be educating Jews throughout the world and reframing how our Jewish communities and general population promotes mental health and mental illness awareness.”

Its solid growth and the passion of the team members indicates that Refuat Hanefesh will achieve its goals and become a trusted and critical part of the Orthodox Jewish community.

The staff of Refuat Hanefesh