Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Orthodoxy and the field of mental health

Recently, while riding the bus I eavesdropped on a conversation between a young religious woman around my age and a woman who appeared to be an old teacher of hers from seminary. The two women, whom I gathered had not seen each other in a few years were busy catching up, and the teacher asked her old student what she was up to. When the student replied that she was in college studying psychology the teacher responded, "Oh, very nice. I have been thinking about going to college to study psychology, I think that it would help me understand my students better."

She continued, "I think that psychology has a lot to offer. Of course, anything that contradicts the torah you just have to throw out the window."

While I find this teacher's desire to improve her ability to connect with her students admirable there are two things that puzzle me.

First, her statement regarding things that she might learn that will "contradict the torah." Perhaps I haven't been looking hard enough, but no psychological theory that I have seen has contradicted the torah, and actually, I cannot fathom how it could pose such a stira.

Now, if she would have phrased her statement differently, like say, "Anything that might be improper for a bas yisroel to read I will have to avoid", I might have understood-- especially considering her desire for insight as opposed to making mental health a career. Freud himself, notwithstanding his genius, was a fairly serious menuval, so I can certainly fathom and identify with such a concern.

What really bothered me was the anticipation. This woman, who most assuredly had never given more than a glance at any of the field's literature, had already concluded that there were large chunks of it that were incompatible with yiddeshkeit.

What bothers me further still is the field's reputation as being somewhat kephiradic and in opposition to rabbinic Judaism-- as if therapists have the desire to undermine rabbanim, and change the values of the religious community. Some of the blame falls on us, as I do believe that there is an element of mental health professionals who believe that rabbanim should stay away from any type of therapy. An older woman with whom I worked last year, and who believed that the only part of the therapy process in which rabbanim should take part is the referral, comes to mind. However, in my, admittedly limited, experience these people are the minority.

I was recently asked by a young lawyer if I was worried about some of the halachically problematic situations that would arise for me in the future. When I asked for an example he responded, "I don't know, lets say someone comes in and says that he has homosexual feelings, and that he doesn't know what to do." I told him that I am not sure why that would be problematic-- that is where the work begins.

It occurred to me that I should have replied with the classic technique of responding to a question with a question. In this case how he intends to deal with his firm's not so subtle encouragement of over billing. I would assume that such a case is halachically stickier, and one that definitely occurs more often.

The point is that sure, there is always a complex interplay for the frum therapist regarding the sometimes conflicting values of the two worlds that he or she is a part. Nevertheless, this should not pasul the profession. On the contrary I believe if utilized correctly this conflict can enhance the self tremendously. Moreover, I would fiercely contend that other professions that are more business oriented pose greater halachic dilemmas for a frum Jew.

The second thing that bothered me was the fact that if she would find something that would contradict the torah she would have to "throw it out the window."

Using the assumption that nothing in psychology refutes the basic tenants of the torah, let's assume that what she meant is that anything that might stray at all from what chazal said (again, I am unsure of what that might be, but let's assume it exists) is to be immediately discarded.

I certainly understand that we must be wary when it comes to divrei chazal, but the attitude of throwing out as opposed to dealing with just bothers me. You can read any of the many things written regarding the whole Slifkin affair, as I have no desire to rehash this topic. Just wanted to mention it.

Again, from the little I have come across, psychological research confirms the teachings of our sages far more often than it attacks them. And although the tide has begun to turn within the orthodox world regarding the field of mental health, I still perceive more than a little bit of misgiving. The bottom line is that the orthodox community needs the mental health profession, whether or not it wishes to concede as much.


uberimma said...

I think the ikkar is the last line of your post. There's often a perception that mental health issues are either a) imagined, b) a result of bad upbringing, or c) a result of failures on the part of the individual who should be davening more/learning more/ focusing attention on Torah and mitzvos instead of some kind of internal weakness.

I have a friend from college who is a very sweet, extremely serious guy with major issues with manic depression--his meds are always in need of adjustment, he's been hospitalized several times, and he suffers terribly from depression partly because of fear of mania. When he was learning at yeshiva in Israel, he went to the masgiach ruchani to talk about arranging a time once a week to see a therapist and every other week to check in with a psychiatrist. The MR tried to discourage him on the grounds that it was bittul zman and he would be better off using that time learning. Nice guy, well-intentioned, but completely, totally clueless. If my friend had let himself be bulldozed, he would have been back in the hospital, and probably out of yeshiva, within a couple of months.

There's something about the mental health profession that is met with a gut reaction of "no, we don't do that," that isn't considered or rational. You could explain it in any number of ways, but in the end it's terribly damaging to the people who need help the most.

sam said...

Good points, but I'll summarize what they were talking about in one paragraph.

The feeling that psychology contradicts the Torah is based on some wacky theories that have come out of that profession. Blaming your parents and everybody else for all your problems is a good example. And of course there are those stories, whether exagerrated or not, of these psychologists having sex with their patients (curiously not when they weigh 300 pounds) in order to 'better understand' them. I'm sure there are more but you get my drift.

Anonymous said...


blaming your parents (I'm talking about non-abusive situations) is immature and not terribly constructive.

however, understanding how family patterns affect a person, sometimes negatively, can be incredibly important in figuring out where a problem came from, how it plays out, and how to heal.

and this can be done with compassion, understanding that the parents are human and humans make mistakes, and that a lot of people's mistakes don't happen in a vacuum but are connected to times they've been hurt.


OOS said...

The tide is turning-- especially in America. The charedi world in Israel has been slower, although things are changing here as well. Listen, the problem is so bad that it is not a question of if, but when.

Like anon said, the theories that I believe you are referring to are not whacky at all, nor to they espous blaming parents. However, many theories, although not all, emphasize the importance of early experiences in personality development. As such, understanding the family of origin, and especially what an individual recieved from his parents who were his original teachers is unavoidable. Hopefully, the therapist will be very respectful in probing the client's background.

I am not sure which stories you are referring to, but intercourse with clients is the most obvious ethical no no, is grounds for an immediate removal of one's license, and is certainly part of no theoretical model aimed at "better understanding" clients.

MoChassid said...

what's with the new background? Very Shdoddy.

Anonymous said...

Were the baalei kabbalah menuvelach also?

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine went to gush, and before he left to come back to America he went to go speak to rav aharon lichtenstein about his college studies(he was going to yu) and rav ahron suggestd to him that he should major n psychology bc he felt that the field was an excellent one for a thinking ben torah to have a greater grasp on how he should use his torah learning to grow as a person etc. I find it very illuminating how the MO Gadol hador not only doesnt forbid its study but recommends it for his talmidim as a way to further their religious growth. I have got to assume that its bc rav aharon would never assume that their is something forbidden there without seeing it for himself, and once he studied the subject himself he obviously felt it was a very worthwhile endeavour for bnei and bnos torah. v'tein bilibeinu l'ha'avin u'lihaskel at kol divrei talmud toratecha.Brad