For years, people with mental health problems have hidden their condition because of the stigma attached to psychiatric illness. Six years ago, people with mental health challenges agreed to have life-sized posters of themselves displayed at Boston’s Logan Airport in a project called “Deconstructing Stigma.”
Now, after a year of planning, the project has been adopted at the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) in collaboration with Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital. The Israeli project inspired by McLean’s global campaign will be carried out over a full academic year by a class of 30 fourth-year nursing students from Ofek, JCT’s special track for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) female students who were chosen for the campaign with the hope of making them agents of change in Israeli society.
Mental health problems are an acute problem globally, and Israel is no exception. Nationally, the Health Ministry reports that suicide is the second-most common cause of death for Israeli males ages 15 to 24, and third-most common for young females. Nearly half of Israel’s population suffers at some point from mental-health issues, with anxiety and depression being the most common challenges.
The pop-up installations are already on display in Jerusalem at JCT’s Tal and Lev campuses where there are male and female nursing and engineering students, and at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center nearby.
The display features life-sized posters of individuals with mental health challenges who volunteered to publicly and boldly share their personal struggles. The goal of the campaign is to highlight the complexity of living with a psychiatric disorder, seeking treatment, navigating insurance and healthcare systems and facing stigma.
A study of attitudes about mental health six months after the reform effort went into effect found that most people still felt uncomfortable seeking referral to mental health services through the public health system.
The study found that Arab-Israelis have lower levels of comfort in seeking mental health care than Jewish Israelis. Only 13% of respondents to another recent study said they would seek professional treatment if they felt anxious or tense but would seek help immediately if they felt they were in crisis due to a “severe” psychiatric illness.
“The goal of Deconstructing Stigma is to bring to life what occurs behind closed doors,” said Dr. David Rosmarin, director of the spirituality and mental health program at McLean Hospital, and an associate professor in the Psychiatry Department at Harvard Medical School. “There’s a lot of mystery around what happens in people who have a mental illness. With this initiative, our volunteers are proudly coming forward and saying, ‘Here I am. This is what happened to me, this is how I deal with it and this is how I’m thriving.’ In doing so, we humanize what mental illness looks like.”
McLean partnered with Katz – a longtime advocate for humanitarian, mental health and environmental causes – to bring mental health education and anti-stigma programming to Israel. Katz saw McLean’s display at the airport in 2018, when a family member was receiving care at McLean. He was inspired to contact the hospital about bringing the program to Israel.
A year later, McLean representatives met with more than 20 hospitals, universities, museums, municipalities, healthcare organizations and others in Israel to discuss ways to highlight the importance of mental health. These meetings were the start of several ongoing collaborations between McLean and Israeli organizations.
“From my perspective, the problem of mental health stigma is worse in Israel than the US because of the culture, the religion and the ‘macho’ attitude,” Katz explained. But attitudes are shifting and enthusiasm for battling stigma is on the rise.