‘Healing the Soul’

The Jewish News
Allison Jacobs

Allison Jacobs

The silhouette of a head pointing left is made up of black and blue hands. Above the head reads "spotlight on," and in the head reads "teen mental health."
Shining the Light: Spotlight on Teen Mental Health logo

Saving lives, one click at a time.

When someone asks how you’re doing, it is not always easy to respond with a truthful answer. Replying “I’m not well” or “I’m feeling depressed” can be challenging for many of us.

Across various cultures and communities, discussing mental illness can be tricky, despite that one in five people in America experiences a mental illness. Even so, people often feel alone.

Dr. Ariel Mintz
Dr. Ariel Mintz

Dr. Ariel Mintz, a Minneapolis-born psychiatrist, has always excelled at helping others, especially within the Jewish community. Growing up as the middle child of five, he became an adept listener at an early age.

As a young adult, he chose to put these skills to the test at Yeshiva University in New York, where he received a bachelor of arts in psychology.

During medical school at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, he began noticing a high volume of Jewish patients struggling with mental illness during his psychiatry rotation.

“I was shocked by how many Jews were on the psychiatric ward — I had never before met or even heard of a Jew with a serious mental illness,” Mintz says. He also noticed Jewish patients were often hospitalized longer, particularly those from Orthodox communities.

Curious about this unsettling pattern, Mintz began questioning his patients. He discovered they were often fearful of damaging their family’s reputation by opening up or felt people outside of the Jewish faith could not comprehend their struggles.

Mintz also witnessed people in his personal life facing challenges. His close friend, Nathan Gilson, approached him several years ago, saddened by a friend who committed suicide with no apparent warning signs. He urged Mintz to utilize his psychiatry background to help Jewish people talk more openly about mental illness.

As Mintz settled in to his residency program at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, he set to work on developing a supportive network geared toward Jewish people.

Refuat Hanefesh logoRather than an in-person group, Mintz decided to create a safe space online where people could remain anonymous, yet still receive support. With the help of his wife, Avital Mintz, they launched Refuat Hanefesh in August 2016, based in St. Louis Park, Minn.

Refuat Hanefesh means “healing of the soul.” Mintz selected the name to emphasize that in Jewish tradition, the prayer for healing is dedicated to both the body and soul.

After generating a strong following within its first year, Refuat Hanefesh became a nonprofit in 2017. Mintz hired a team of experts across the country, including social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and rabbis to help the organization flourish. His friend, Nathan Gilson, now acts as vice chair and treasurer.

While Refuat Hanefesh is geared toward the Jewish community, the site welcomes everyone. The website offers a bounty of resources, plus insightful blog posts featuring stories of mental illness, typically with a Jewish spin.

Live conversations also take place monthly, featuring mental health professionals who interact with users on the site and respond to questions in real time.

Quote box reading "Every ending is creating the space and opening for an amazing new beginning." from Fragments of LifeIn Mintz’s view, a key aspect of Refuat Hanefesh is its virtual support room, where people create a username to freely express themselves in a comfortable forum.

“The goal is not merely to get questions answered, but to build a community of support and to help people realize they are not alone,” says Mintz, who notes online users span at least six continents.

In the upcoming months, Mintz and his team are adding more moderators and focusing on linking the support room with social media platforms.                         

While more development is under way for Refuat Hanefesh, Mintz has received overwhelmingly positive responses so far.

“We constantly get feedback on blog posts and live conversations that we are saving lives,” Mintz says.

People have also shared their initial hesitancy to seek treatment until discovering Refuat Hanefesh, along with an increase in discussions about mental illness at Shabbat dinner tables everywhere.

While the organization has led to a positive shift regarding mental illness, Mintz knows there are still Jews who are hesitant to come forward and ask for help across all denominations.

“The status quo does not need to continue — the stigma can and will end in our generation,” says Mintz. “It is up to each of us to take action and make that happen.”

Pledges From Refuat Hanefesh Users

  • I pledge to help those I can; spread the word about mental illness in all its manifestations; and pray for a welcoming, supportive and open community.
  • I have pledged to be far less judgmental of the people around me. You never know what they are going through. This has allowed me to experience the world through an increasingly positive lens.
  • I pledge to share about my mental illness and, in sharing, educate and enlighten people that people with mental illness can and do live productive and valuable lives. That they are not all violent and dangerous. I have shared with a lot of people.
  • I pledge to listen. I pledge to avoid indifference. I pledge to show people I care and I have compassion. I have more compassion every day for those who fight substance addiction — an addiction I never could understand. It is not my place to judge anyone.
  • I take the Refuat Hanefesh pledge to keep an open mind and to never judge, as anybody could be battling mental illness. Moreover, I pledge to be open about my day-to-day and large-picture challenges and support others in their mental health journey.
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