Mental Illness Is Not a Deal Breaker

Rabbi Dr. Yosef Shagalow makes the case for pursuing a compatible shidduch when there is awareness of a mental health issue; it may put the future couple at an advantage, he says.

by Anash.org writer

He told her he takes medication for Anxiety, should we be telling our daughter to end things with him? 

“You can swap out he for she and Anxiety for Depression, Bipolar, or a number of mental illnesses and you’re looking at a question I get asked far too often,” Rabbi Dr. Yosef Shagalow told Anash.org. “The answer up front is no, that’s not a reason to stop moving forward with a shidduch. But that question tells me that we have a problem in the way we’re approaching mental health in the frum community. And one of the areas we need to talk about it most is when it comes to shidduchim.”

Dr. Shagalow, a clinical psychologist and shliach, holds a prominent voice in the frum world of mental health. His experience as both a clinician and rabbi give him unique insight into the frum community’s perspective on these matters. What he sees on a regular basis is a reluctance and sometimes outright objection to seeking help with mental health challenges.

This reluctance, Dr. Shagalow believes, stems from a fear of how diagnosing and treating a mental illness will affect a person’s shidduchim. “So many singles and their parents reach out to me for guidance in navigating the complexities of shidduchim. When the topic of mental health comes up, it becomes clear that we need to do a better job educating our community.” 

Dr. Shagalow explains that the vast majority of people in any society will experience some form of mental distress in their lifetime. For some, it may be mild and infrequent, similar to a seasonal cold; for others, it might be more severe and persistent. Like many physical ailments, these issues can be treated and managed effectively. Diabetes does not prevent a person from living a full, robust life, and mental illness does not need to either. 

“The difficult truth is, life’s challenges don’t discriminate; people do,” says Dr. Shagalow. “There are no perfect people. Anxiety and depression are names for an experience that someone is living with, not the defining characteristics of his entire being. They do not define a person’s ability to be a functional and loving spouse, parent, friend or community member.”

Dr. Shagalow says that parents are often concerned when a mental health issue is identified in a prospective shidduch for their child. But according to him, being able to identify an issue from the outset is actually a good thing. In fact, there are personality traits that don’t involve stigma but can be just as detrimental to a relationship, such as being an extreme perfectionist or workaholic.  These issues can cause a lot of damage, but because there is no clinical diagnosis they often go unnoticed. 

“When someone can be upfront about the challenges they face, it usually means that they are taking the necessary steps to address them.  They are likely treating their condition properly, with the help of therapy and medication.  The question we really need to be asking is not — do they have a mental health issue? — but, how are they managing the treatment of their condition?”

Rather than immediately shutting down a suggestion, or ending things that have begun, Dr. Shagalow suggests respectfully inquiring about how a person is managing the symptoms of their mental health diagnosis and what supports they have in place.  

“What I would ask in an instance like this is, how do they function in their daily lives and fulfill their responsibilities? What are their close relationships like? Are they on medication and if so, is it working to help them manage their symptoms well? Do they take their medications consistently?” 

If parents or singles need help navigating these questions, it’s a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional. This individual can advise on what to ask and will understand what the responses mean without jumping to fearful conclusions. When a diagnosis is presented by a prospective shidduch, you may actually be setting up your child for the best success in a future relationship. 

One of the biggest challenges that our community is facing in this area, according to Dr. Shagalow, is a deep rooted fear of mental illness. “Parents, singles, and spouses think that if they don’t talk about an issue or give it a name, they are saving their children from having trouble in shidduchim, or from ending up in a problematic relationship. But mental health issues are not what destroys relationships and families; ignoring them is. We are doing a great disservice to our community by hiding from this. 

“I have watched families ignore the signs and symptoms of easily treatable issues in the name of shidduchim, only to watch those same young people end up with very painful and difficult relationship challenges later on. Issues don’t go away because we ignore them, they just rear their head down the line when they’ve become far more difficult to manage.” 

Being fearful of and silent about these common issues is hurting our young singles as they seek life partners and build relationships with them. We need to do better, and we are beginning to. 

“Since I began my work as a psychologist, I have seen our community slowly improve in this area. I have watched lovely young people settle into healthy, enduring relationships with an understanding of their spouses’ conditions. It’s important that we continue to educate our community and increase our momentum.

“The world is full of incredible people who live with mental illness and have healthy relationships, beautiful families, and stable jobs doing wonderful things. No doubt, there is someone in your personal life whom you greatly respect who is living with a mental health issue. 

“Having the self awareness to seek help for a personal struggle will only serve as a foundation for healthy coping and communication in a future relationship. Our experiences make us who we are, and a mental health diagnosis is only one piece of that beautiful puzzle. This is what it means to be human.”

Dr. Shagalow is available for consultation at 612-998-5669 or [email protected]

Discussion
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  1. Thank you for creating a website with such interesting and toichendik content. Every time I come on there are so many things that I find I can take away from this website. It’s also a pleasure to look at a news site that has standards and follows the guidelines of rabbanim.

    As someone who works in the field of chinuch, I’d especially like to thank you for bringing up this very important topic. The concerns facing those who are struggling are real and I’ve heard them numerous times. This article was informative and interesting and I appreciated his perspective a lot. It is such an important perspective for ALL of us to hear but especially for someone struggling with a mental health issue who is concerned to get the help they need due to stigmas.

    Much continued Hatzlacha in all of the good work you’re doing.

  2. I would like to mention that the Rebbe often advised people not to overdue and exaggerate their depression/anxiety etc., since many times it is just a method of the yetzer hara to create self pity and incorrectly excuse us from functioning normally. Instead the Rebbe prescribed היסח הדעת and מעט אור דוחה הרבה חושך.

    There is a fine line between ignoring an issue and not creating a nonexistent issue.

  3. Excellent article! The typical story goes like this: When deep into dating the boy or girl reveals to the other a mental or emotional challenge they regularly face. Shocked the listener immediately runs to tell his/her parents who then encourage them to end it, because who needs “damaged goods”?, or “you deserve someone who is healthy and stable”. What they are really doing is neglecting all attributes of honesty, maturity, and healthy character development, and in its place are promoting shame, neglect, and contempt to challenges that every single human faces to some degree or another.

    Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, however, more often than not, being open and honest about your struggles before marriage is a strength in character and not a weakness, thus it should be a reason to pursue a shidduch and not to end it.

  4. And i would like to mention that a non struggler in these issues has no idea of what is really going through the struggler, so perhaps “היסח הדעת” might be easy for a non struggler to preach (and might work for some) but for many strugglers it’s just another form of rejection and confirmation that they’re not being taken seriously

    1. Totally agree. It doesn’t help to tell someone who is struggling with an imbalance, to have Emuna and Bitochon, as in the situation he is in, it’s not what he needs to hear, and it’s not gonna help the situation.

  5. בעל מידות טובות מלידה, בעל חיסרון הוא יותר מבעל מידות רעות. האחרון מכיר בחסרונו ועוסק ברפואות, ואילו הראשון אינו יודע כלל שהוא חולה. סה”ש ת”ש עמ’ 242 – .

  6. There are two different issues here. One is that someone should get any help that they need, or that their children need, without worrying about shiddduchim. The other issue is how to react if, during a shidduch that is otherwise going well, someone reveals their struggles with mental illness.

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