Is a Rabbi All Things to All People?

Practical Tips and Tools when Dealing with Mental Health
Dr. Amy Austin Psy.D., Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

It is common practice that shul congregants often seek their Rabbi or Rebbetzin’s guidance, not just for Torah learning Jewish insights, but for a number of issues relating to their personal life and health. This can sometimes cause trepidation on behalf of the Rabbi or Rebbetzin in question. How helpful can a Shliach or Shlucha be, when faced with problems that seem so far out of their range of knowledge? Should they be all things to all people? Is that humanly possible?  Let’s delve a little deeper into when, and how to provide a congregant with the professional referrals they need, while remaining a supportive voice in their life.

First and foremost, you must be aware of your own capabilities, and give yourself the permission to say, “I don’t know how to handle this, let’s speak to a professional.” While it may be difficult to admit to a congregant (or yourself) that you cannot handle this situation on your own, a qualified professional will be able to provide a more thorough assessment and insights than any untrained observer.

Second, you, as a Shliach or Shlucha, are a mandated reporter. That means, that by law, you must report an incident of harm to another person whose name is given to you. (This is known as ‘imminent harm’). For a step-by-step list of what to do, should someone report imminent harm to you, see the end of this article.

But what if someone isn’t planning on harming others? Here’s what to do in some common situations that may arise:

  • SUICIDAL TALK: If you learn of someone in your community who is suicidal, it’s best to give them the local or national suicide hotline number. Then, once the immediate crisis has passed, the congregant should be referred to a psychiatrist who is an MD specializing in mental health issues, who can perform a psychological assessment and evaluate their needs.
  • ADDICTION: There are community members who either abuse drugs and alcohol and/or are drug and alcohol dependent. The definition of an addiction is something that is done in excess that is causing negative consequences in someone’s life, whether it be personally, professionally, academically, mentally, or emotionally. They can be referred to several specialized organizations for dealing with these problems in a dignified and safe manner. (Download Resource List)

Even when not faced with severe mental health issues or the potential for self harm, it is still wise to retain a list of some reputable referrals for local psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers, psychiatrists, and//or rehab centers nearby. For everything from marital issues to anxiety, or even depression, you can always provide a compassionate ear, but this way you can remain a strong support without going out of your depth.

In Tanya, Chapter 41, the posuk Vehinei, discusses serving G-d according to our own capabilities. In serving G-d according to our own, unique, and definitively special ways, we can understand more fully how to best serve others. Being cognizant of, and setting healthy boundaries with others is an important aspect of optimal self-care. Remember, living healthy boundaries teaches healthy boundaries to others. Our behaviors define who we are.

Live well!
Dr. Amy