In recent years, much progress has been made in breaking the walls of silence that surround mental health and illness in part of the Orthodox Jewish world. Organizations such as Refuat Hanefesh or Amudim have inspired a form of peaceful mini-revolution and thousands of frum individuals who might previously have struggled alone with anxiety, depression, marital problems, or other mental health issues are getting appropriate help.
As more Orthodox Jews are seeking out psychotherapy, the question that naturally arises is whether they should seek out an Orthodox Jewish therapist or just find the most qualified professional without regard to religion. In reality, every situation to do with mental health (or, as it is known in Hebrew, briut hanefesh – health of the soul) is deeply personal. There are some people who will thrive best with a therapist from a completely different background, whereas others need an Orthodox Jewish therapist with a deep knowledge of their world if they are going to make significant progress. There are some general considerations that apply to almost everyone and you should them consider before making your choice.
A qualified, licensed therapist is not negotiable
When thinking about what therapist to choose from, it’s important to set a baseline minimum. Your therapist must be qualified and have a valid license. You may have heard wonderful things about an unlicensed therapist who has an unparalleled sensitivity and understanding, but if that’s true then he or she should get a license. Licensing ensures the therapist has achieved a level of professional competency and is bound by certain regulatory and ethical guidelines. There are too many stories about the immense harm unlicensed therapists can do to ignore these concerns.
Of course, that applies equally to a Jewish or non-Jewish therapist. However, the reality is that there is an unfortunately large number of unlicensed psychotherapists working within the Orthodox community. If the only Orthodox therapists you can find are unlicensed then you will have to find a non-Orthodox or non-Jewish option. It’s simply not worth the risk. The good news is that in the major centers of Jewish life like New York there are plenty of licensed, qualified therapists from all parts of the Orthodox spectrum to choose from.
Cultural compatibility is a real and legitimate concern
Some people might think that seeking out a frum counselor or therapist is unnecessarily insular or narrow-minded, but its actually precisely what many of the most open-minded and forward-thinking psychologists would recommend. Currently, a significant issue of concern in the mental health field is ‘cultural competence’, which means, in effect, that the vast majority of therapists come from a middle-class, urban and educated WASP or secular Jewish backgrounds, As a result, people from other communities have lower success rates in therapy. There is, accordingly, a major push to increase minority representation in the mental health profession, precisely because it is recognized that therapeutic outcomes are usually better when the therapist is deeply familiar with the culture of the client.
In his post, fellow frum therapist, Rabbi Raffi Bilek, discusses in some detail the way that having an Orthodox Jewish therapist can make therapy more successful. The key points are:
- You waste less time explaining basic parts of your daily life such as Shabbos or kashrus, freeing up more time for the actual therapy.
- You won’t face any pressure, even implicit, to compromise on your halachic observance or feel judged for it.
- You won’t be given advice that is inappropriate for you as an observant Jew.
- Your therapist will understand you, your life, your worldview and values in a way that someone who is not an Orthodox Jew can’t.
It’s important to remember that the therapist’s job is about a lot more than making diagnoses or delivering information. Successful therapy is based on a relationship formed between therapist and client. Any impediment to that relationship is an impediment to you making progress in therapy. Perhaps a good way to think about it is this: if you generally find it easier to make friends with other Orthodox Jews, then you will probably find it is easier to form an effective therapeutic relationship with an Orthodox therapist. You certainly shouldn’t feel obligated to find the “best therapist around” regardless of background, because in truth there’s no such thing as the best therapist, only the best therapist for you.
When moral values collide
While as Orthodox Jews we strive to contribute to American society and find much that is admirable about contemporary America, there’s no avoiding the fact that there are vast chasms between what we and mainstream society regard as correct and proper in many areas. This might not necessarily present problems in therapy, assuming that the therapist is professional and respectful. However, there are issues that are fraught with pitfalls, some of which I hear about from clients who have tried a non-Jewish therapist before coming to me. For example, for a sixteen-year-old girl from a Haredi background, being out late with boys certainly constitutes ‘acting out’ and can likely indicate significant problems within the family. However, to a secular family therapist, it will seem, quite literally, like the most normal, healthy thing in the world and it will be the parents’ reaction that seems strange and unnatural. In situations like these, it’s definitely wise to seek out a therapist whose moral values are more closely aligned with yours.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing
While there are definite and real benefits to having an Orthodox Jewish therapist, many people prefer to see someone outside their community, either to ensure their privacy is protected or because they want a different perspective. What’s important to remember is that there are solutions which can give you some of the best of both worlds. There are non-Orthodox therapists who have extensive experience dealing with Orthodox Jews and have the expertise necessary to deal with their special needs. Another solution is to look for a therapist from a different stream of Orthodoxy. I’m from a more centrist background, but many of my clients are Yeshivish or Chassidic; they appreciate the fact that I understand their world, but also have a certain distance from it.
About the author
Marcia Kesner is an Orthodox Jewish therapist in New York who specializes in providing frum-friendly therapy. For more information about Marcia, fill out the contact form.Please share this post!