Are Frum Women Depressed?

depressedThis week I had had enough.

My Shabbos relaxation is reading a popular frum glossy. But this time it was it. To my horror, I realized that for the past few months, every single issue of their women’s supplement ran a major story about depression and mental illness.

Not that I advocate sweeping important issues under the carpet, but seriously are we all of us depressed? Though it doesn’t look that way on the surface, as I talk to more and more of my clients, all frum women, I am starting to sense that we are a dejected community.

We are insistently set on soul searching, on perfecting ourselves, our families, our children, and our world. We are in search of perfection: perfect spirituality, perfectly matched kids’ clothes, perfect personalities, perfect Shabbos tables, perfectly-themed mishlochei manot, and perfect shidduchim.

We are obsessed with trying to be good enough, holy enough, productive enough, and caring enough.

We are in a constant search for balance – between home and work, discipline and warmth, community and household, others and ourselves.

And so we are unhappy. We are unhappy because perfection is unattainable. It doesn’t exist. In the words of Yishayahu, humans are walking beings, forever destined to move forward, to develop, to search. Perfection is a myth because it is antithetical to progress and development, without which life is meaningless.

We are unhappy because we are letting everyone else – our parents and teachers and neighbors and communities – write the books of our lives for us. And we are unhappy because all around us we see the deceptively  smooth, gold-embossed leather bindings of everyone else’s books, as ours are filled with smudges and half-finished stories and blank pages.

We are unhappy because our plates are overflowing with everything we did not pile on them, or actually did without wanting to. We are so scared of appearing selfish and egoistic, of displeasing anyone and everyone that we push our own meat and potatoes to the side to make room for everyone else’s dessert.

And so the magazine which is supposed to bring us joy and pleasure on Shabbos (pleasure rooted in self-sufficiency is the essence of Shabbos) is full of sad stories and mussar and problem solving tips and stylized, never-in-your-kitchen food pictures.

So as we pour all of our energy into fixing everything that is not right, we are missing happiness, since Chassidus teaches us an out-of-balance emphasis in imperfection pulls us away from the emotional ability to experience joy and pleasure.

But there is hope. We can become better, more spiritual, more caring, more accomplished and we can be happy, if we would just go about it in a different way. You see, Baal Hatanya teaches that the way to move around a dark room is not by groping the furniture. It’s by turning on the light!

Instead of fixing our many wrong-doing, we can enjoy Hashem’s wonderful world and reconnect with our unique gifts and skills – the foundation of our Divine purpose. Instead overeducating our kids, we can make Yiddishkeit fun and invigorating. As one woman put it, in all the years of Beis Yaakov she had been taught mesirus nefesh, but nobody had ever told her that raising a happy family is a priority. Instead of solving our unending problems, we can start making our lives more pleasurable and more fulfilling. And ultimately more meaningful.

Lack of happiness is the root of all evil, the driving force of all of our community’s problems. Tachat shelo avadata et Hashem besimcha is a prelude to an exhaustive list of curses. Let’s not travel down that path.

As Pesach approaches, let’s scrub away the thinking of oppression. Let’s leave the Mitzrayim of dejection. Let’s use the Yom Tov to turn on the light and the smiles in each one of our homes. Let’s make our communities brighter and better places to live.

Are you getting the same feelings? What’s your perspective?

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12 Responses to Are Frum Women Depressed?

  1. Bahtya says:

    I think society as a whole is more depressed, and the frum world has not been spared. But it has very little to do with being frum, and more to do with how isolated we’ve all become from each other. For some people it might be about unattainable perfection, but I think for many others, it’s simply loneliness, and the inability to reach out, because people are afraid of being “in someone else’s business.”

  2. Hadassah says:

    Last night, I had promised my daughter we were going out somewhere. Then I mentioned something about housework getting done and my exhaustion. She said, but how will we leave by 8? I said, no, you misunderstood. I meant that I am not doing any of this housework because I am too tired. Of course, when we came back I did do some of it… I guess I am a work in progress!

  3. Rivki Silver says:

    Interesting question. I’m sorry that so many of your clients give the feeling of dejection! That’s a bummer! The picture you paint is pretty bleak. B”H, that’s not the way my life feels. Sure, sometimes I feel overwhelmed or frustrated by the responsibilities of being a mother of small children, or by the struggle to fix my bad middos, but my baseline is positive. I think a lot of that just has to do with my disposition, but I know that being frum also contributes strongly to my happiness.

    I completely agree that seeking perfection is a dead end! Only Hashem is perfect. But when we study Torah and focus on the simcha of doing mitzvos, instead of the narishkeit which can unfortunately be found in our society, then we can find the pleasure and fulfillment that we all need. And part of that is definitely nurturing our own skills and talents. I make time to write and play music, even with my busy life.

    On that note, I also agree with your conclusion that Yiddishkeit shouldn’t be only about mesirus nefesh, but also about joy and life. And normalcy. And knowing ourselves. Not everyone is cut out for the same kind of life, and that is okay. I would imagine that a lot of unhappiness could come from the feeling of “needing” to pursue a certain life path, but not being cut out for it. You know? I didn’t grow up frum, so I didn’t fully face this challenge, but a lot of my friends in seminary wanted to marry someone who wanted to learn in kollel, and I felt that it wasn’t for me, but I had to investigate and work on the feeling of insecurity and inferiority that came with this. And it was absolutely the right decision for me, and I’m so glad I wasn’t swayed by peer pressure.

    One point I differ on – I don’t think we *shouldn’t* strive to improve ourselves (is that what you meant by “fixing our many wrong-doings?” Sorry if I misunderstood), but rather, know that it’s a gradual process, and to rejoice in every small victory, and to not become dejected by setbacks. Middos improvement is a big step toward attaining happiness, and I don’t think it’s mutual exclusive from enjoying Hashem’s creation. Those things can coexist nicely.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! I came over because Hannah Katsman shared your link on facebook. Sorry for leaving such a megillah of a comment!

    • Leah says:

      @Rivki thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I definitely agree that baby steps and celebrating any progress is the way to happiness AND personal development.

  4. Shoshy says:

    Comparing ourselves against the slick pictures in the glossy magazines is never helpful to self-esteem. The frum women’s glossies of course don’t show pictures of bodies or faces, like Glamour or Cosmo, so we compare our Shabbos tables to the ones in the pictures, but it’s the same idea. All women must remember that advertisements and even magazine articles are there to sell products, not to help us achieve our goals.

  5. Rivkah Grant says:

    Hi Leah,

    Thank you for an interesting post. Just a few things that came to my mind when reading:

    Firstly, as someone who has suffered with depression for almost a decade, I feel like I should explain a little about what depression was to me. Depression was never about unhappiness of where I was in life or looking at others and feeling inadequate. Depression is a physical illness, one that will usually be cured/significantly improved by medication and therapy. Depression and other mental illnesses should be looked at in the same way as any other illness; it is something that studies have proven to have come about as a result of a chemical imbalance.

    The articles that are being written are not about someone who is feeling low every so often or about being dejected, they are about people who see everything as bleak, and that there is nothing that will make them happy. Depression robs you of your will to live and makes every second of the day last for eternity.

    So in reality, you have highlighted the need for these Articles in our Magazines. There is a massive need for openness and understanding within our community – more so than in the ‘general world’. This is so that there are no misconceptions. Our Rabbonim, teachers and parents all need to understand the illnesses so that they can make an informed decision when someone comes to them with a problem. A Rav telling someone who is obsessive to daven harder could cause a lot of damage. in fact the eitzah that would be most useful here would be to tell the individual to go to their Doctor. If it was as easy as just being more positive and having simchas hachaim believe me I would not be on antidepressants.

    The statistics show that 1 in 4 people will suffer with a mental illness. We cannot just pretend this doesn’t happen in the frum community, we cannot just say that Torah is the answer – in the same way a broken leg will not be fixed just by davening harder.

    Over the past few months I have spent a lot of time and energy engaging those around me within the community to talk out about mental illness. The more we are open, the quicker we can get help. I have set up a website and started a blog Both of which have really hit home to many people in our community. I have had phenomenal repsonse from everyone around me and I hope that this will really help people to understand the illnesses concerned.

    People seem extremely worried about getting their bashert. But if we truly believed in bashert, we would believe that nothing will get in the way of what is Hashem’s rotzon.

    I am sorry, this does appear to be a bit of a rant, but I really want there to be more understanding … Please don’t see this in any was as a criticism – it was what came to my mind straight away when I started reading it.

    Would love to hear back from you or your other readers!



    • Leah says:

      @Rivkah, thank you so much for your candid response. A couple of people made a similar comment privately so I actually replaced “depressed” with “unhappy” throughout the article. Clinical depression definitely needs to be addressed by qualified professionals. A person can’t “snap out” of depression.

      Having said that, I am a big believer in the mind-body connection when it comes to physical illness and certainly mental health as well. Clinical depression can be set off by a variety of triggers and chronic stress is one of them. Stress, excessive (self)criticism, and unattainable goals don’t contribute to anyone’s emotional equilibrium.

      Our community has a long way to go in terms of creating more awareness and eliminating stigma when it comes to mental health. The point of my articles was to call attention to common thinking patterns that create an environmental detrimental to emotional balance.

      • Rivkah Grant says:

        Thank you for your reply.

        I guess there is a need then to make sure your readers see that you are not actually talking about clinical depression (which is not necessarily clear in that you have compared every day stresses to the articles found in the frum magazines concerning metal illness). Of course a stressful environment will have an affect on anyone’s mood but again it is necessary to be careful to not then compare this stress to clinical depression.

        Everyone wants to be more relaxed and less worried, but again this is ‘normal’ and will be a part of everyone’s life. If in fact we weren’t striving for ‘perfection’ we would not be able to move forward.

        I also saw that you had written that you had realised the up-rise in articles on mental illness ‘to your horror’, but again this is quite a negative expression of surprise. I really think it is necessary to ensure that there is as little negativity shown towards both mental illness, and the actual talking about it. Every time I open a magazine that has a discussion on mental illness I feel a sense of relief; that one more person is opening up and that hundreds more people who are really unwell can see they are not alone.

        I hope to be one of those authors at some point soon and I would not want my life experiences to be looked at in horror; in any less of a way than someone’s story of recovery from Cancer would be looked at in a negative way.

        There is nothing to be shocked or afraid about. There is no difference between you or I. We all struggle with different aspects of our lives.

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