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ICYMI: Fight The Stigma, Part 2

“Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!” – so goes the impossibly catchy song from the Lego Movie. In IT, we are often expected to be caught up in that same spirit – hyped up on the adrenaline of fixing systems, catching hackers, and inventing new stuff. These expectations – which come from external sources like our boss or company or IT culture at large, or internally from assumptions we’ve taken on as personal truths – can fly in the face of how we’re actually feeling. When our feelings turn from just being “a little tired”, “a little frustrated”, or “a little sad” to serious challenges like burn out, rage, or depression, it can be hard to admit, let alone seek help or ask our coworkers for support and understanding. And yet religious, moral, and ethical traditions are rich with stories of people coping with the exact same challenges. In this episode, we’re going to get brutally honest about the mental health challenges we’ve faced and are facing today as well as what lessons from our faiths we can carry with us to provide insight, comfort, and even strength. Listen or read the transcript below:

Speaker 1: 00:00 Welcome to our podcast where we talk about the interesting, frustrating and inspiring experiences we have is people with strongly held religious views working in corporate IT. We’re not here to preach or teach you our religion. We’re here to explore ways we make our career as IT professionals mesh or at least not conflict with our religious life. This is Technically Religious.

Leon: 00:24 This is a continuation of the discussion we started last week. Thank you for coming back to join our conversation.

Leon: 00:30 I want to pivot back around though, just talking about the leaders in our faith community and the behaviors or the examples that they show. I read something last year from Rabbi Sacks who is the former chief Rabbi of London. It really surprised me because it was a take on a part of the Torah of the Bible that I wouldn’t have expected it and I didn’t see it when I was reading it myself. Um, Rabbi Sacks was talking about when he himself feels depressed and overwhelmed and anxious. And he said that whenever he felt that way, he would recall a point when Moses himself reached his lowest point. And this is for those people who want to find it in the book of Numbers, chapter 11, verse 10 or thereabouts. Cause I know the numbering is not always the same between different, uh, versions of the Bible. Um, so the Israelites were engaged in their all time favorite activity: complaining about the food. Uh, in this case, they were recalling fondly the cuisine that they got to have in Egypt, completely forgetting about the fact that they were slaves at the time, that was completely ignored. God is, uh, because of this, understandably angry, but Moses was more than angry. Uh, as Rabbi Sacks describes it, he suffers a complete emotional breakdown. And one of the things he says is, it says to God is, “I cannot carry this whole people on my own. It’s too heavy for me.” And rabbi sacks continues by saying “…somehow the knowledge that the greatest Jewish leader of all time had experienced this depth of darkness was empowering..” That he, he took comfort in knowing that everybody sometimes gets there. Everybody experiences this. Even the man who the Bible itself says was the most humble human ever to walk… Who will, who did ever or will ever walk the face of the earth. The one human who was righteous enough to speak face to face with God, still had crushing depression that he didn’t know how to get past himself. And by the way, um, in this plea to God, “I can’t do this.” God has an answer. God’s, you know, by saying I can’t, this God says, okay, here’s how I’m going to help. And that also is empowering. Um, so I just, you know, when we talk about the things that we value in our leaders, I think we, we’d be remiss to not mention Moses.

Josh: 03:17 Yeah. To not mention God, right. Because when we’re talking about the ultimate leader, I mean, even Moses at his lowest point turn to God and said, I can’t do this. And God’s like, okay, let me help you. I think that for those who have a religious belief, um, that is, that is ultimately where they turn to, uh, is just to God.

Yechiel: 03:41 And if I recall correctly, the way God helped him was by telling him to get help to you, told him to gather 70 elders and have them help out with his duties. So having spoken about the stigma behind talking about mental health and it was sort of what the, how we expect our community around us to react, the values that we expect them to have. Um, how do we actually go around treating, uh, non mental, uh, mental health issues? Is there something that we can take from our religious traditions or religious communities? Is there something that we can learn from that?

Josh: 04:13 I mean, mental health within Mormonism is something that very recently has, has started to, uh, to peak. In fact, Mormonism, has a bi-annual conference. It happens in April and October every single year. They call it the general conference and it’s broadcast live from Salt Lake city. In the one that just happened in October, there were a number of addresses from leaders of the church around mental health. Um, the church has, and we’ll put this in the show notes. He actually has a website that’s dedicated to mental health and it outlines a few things that we can do. It talks about, you know, watching what you say. So if, if you’re in a position where someone comes to you and says, “Hey, Yechiel, this is the, the challenge I’m having, be careful the things that you, that you respond with, right? Sometimes we just need to listen and we don’t need to fix, which as engineers is really hard because we want to fix everything because everything can be fixed, right? Um, we also need to be authentic friends. Um, everyone needs a friend and when you are suffering from depression, the world feels like a very lonely place. Um, it’s, you know, talks about things like practice, self care, and it goes into details and what to think. Self care is, um, it talks about, you know, this, uh, the “be still”, you know, sometimes it’s for me, when I’m in a depressive episode, I do the opposite of, um, be still, I get really busy. The more busy I am, probably the, the more unstable my mental health is. Um, so, you know, if I’m working 12, 13, 15 hours a day, um, I’m, I’m probably trying to run away from something, um, you know, talks about, you know, finding joy and taking care of our physical cells, which is really important. Um, yeah, those are all things. Now I will also point out that the reality of Mormonism is this. The state of Utah has the highest percentage of Mormons anywhere in the world. Um, and in a study, um, done I believe in 2017 at found that LDS women are almost twice as common to have mental health issues than LDS men and 20%, 27% of a Mormon women and 14 and a half percent of Mormon men were dealing with a significantly a significant depression. And Utah again, which is predominantly Mormon, also has the highest incidents of adult mental illness and adults with serious thoughts of suicide in the, in the entire United States. And those are some pretty heavy things when you have such a high population that is focused on mental health. So yes, you know, Mormonism itself is doing a lot of things to say to start this narrative. And as we talked about before the show started, Canada, um, among other nations in the world has done a wonderful thing where there’s a company here, uh, it’s kinda like your Ma Bell down there in the States, uh, Bell Canada and they, every year, um, they run a campaign called “Let’s Talk.” And that campaign has been super powerful in, um, addressing the stigma around mental health and seeing others who have not only experienced mental health but have been able to navigate the complexities of it. So, I mean, religious communities, as I talked before, very complex narrative, a very complex system. Some are so much better in dealing with it than others. Um, I think Mormonism is getting better. It still has a ton of work to do.

Yechiel: 07:44 Speaking from the Jewish community perspective, there’s um, the stigma is still there like Leon spoke about earlier. But I do believe it’s getting better. It’s becoming more OK to speak about it. It’s becoming more okay to seek help. I mentioned earlier that, you know, some people can see it as a sort of a religious failing, but on the other hand, Judaism also tells you that when you’re sick you should go to the doctor. There’s um, there’s the verse in the Torah that specifically gives permission to doctors to heal. And so realizing that your mental health is just like any other health issue, there is actually a mitzvah. There’s a commandment to take care of of that. You can’t serve God when you’re not, when you’re sick and bad. You also can’t serve God when you’re depressed. So dealing with it is important.

Leon: 08:31 Right. And, and that versus, I think it’s important to point out that that versus in direct contradiction to the idea that going to a doctor would deny faith in God, that that seeking another human to help fix you would say, “Well, I believe this human is more powerful than, or has somehow more ability or skill than God does.” And so this verse comes to say, “No, that’s not how, that’s how not how this world works. Uh, you know, this world works on certain, you know, principals and doctors have an understanding of, you know, the biology and all those things and that’s okay. I put it there for that reason.” Um, yes, you’re right. You know, God is the one who is ultimately going to heal you. But in the same way that God is the one who ultimately is going to feed you and ultimately gonna make sure you’re okay. And yet we still have to do the work of planting seeds and harvesting and all those things because we still have to take part in this world. The same thing with seeing, uh, you know, professionals who can, who can help us out. They are part of the process. Um, I also want to add that this way, this is where we get into the true role of what a rabbi does in Orthodox Jewish synagogue communal life. Um, I think from the outside people think the rabbi is the, you know, either the smartest Jew in the room, or the one who leads all the religious things, you know, they lead the service and the, they read all the important parts. In fact, when you go to an Orthodox service, the rabbi is probably the one who is sitting there doing the least. Um, in the service. They’re not leading. They’re not, you know, any of those things. The rest of the congregation handles that piece. The rabbi is the one who understands, uh, each of the congregants on the most personal level. That’s, that’s what they’re there for. They’re there to know what somebody is struggling with, uh, religiously and to know if they’re struggling with something emotionally or in their health. Because Judaism is so private about things, people don’t necessarily broadcast their troubles. The rabbi is the single point of contact in a lot of cases where someone says, yeah, I just got fired from my job and I’m really embarrassed about it. And the rabbi can reach out to somebody else and say, Hey, I, you know, I heard that in your company. You’re, you’re looking for somebody. I happen to know someone who is looking for work, you know, and can be that switchboard operator who can put people in touch at the same time, the rabbi is the touchstone. Who, who says, “Oh, that thing that you’re, you know, you’re questioning about your faith. That’s normal. Lots of people do that.” Um, or to say, “Wow, that’s really kind of exceptional. Let’s work on that. Let’s talk about that. Let, let you know. Let’s see who else we can, we can bring in for that.” Whether that is spiritual or emotional or, you know, uh, mental slash psychological or just physical health. Um, they’re the ones who are there to be the reality check and the sanity check and that trusted advisor. So, uh, I, I think Josh speaking to your point about what are you look for in religious leaders. Again, someone who’s can be vulnerable, can also open themselves up to other people being vulnerable to them, but also that’s, that’s their role, uh, in the community. And the other point I wanted to make is that, uh, to your point about being still, uh, in, in Judaism, we pray three times a day, you know, morning, afternoon, and in the evening. The prayers are not, uh, they’re not trivial. You know, they can take anywhere from 45 minutes to, you know, at the very least, 15 minutes, depending on what time of day it is. And I think that that’s, they can be extremely meditative. You know, they offer an opportunity to check in with yourself, you know, whether you want to talk, you know, call it talking to God or checking in with the boss. Uh, I don’t mean Springsteen. Or, uh, you know, checking in, you know, with yourself, whatever it is. If you take the opportunity, prayer can be more than just a litany of, “I really need this. And I really like that. And can you buy me a pony and you know…”, Or, you know, “thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You’re wonderful. You’re wonderful. You’re wonderful.” It can be a moment to say, how am I doing and what feels missing? And Josh, to your point, you know, am I running away from something? Is there something I’m avoiding? What’s that all about? Um, so I think that that in a Jewish context, there are these opportunities. Not that everyone takes them, not that everyone looks at them that way, but I believe that they’re there.

Josh: 13:19 Yeah. Honestly, one of the hardest transitions, one of the hardest things that I had to do when I transitioned away from Mormonism was a rediscover prayer. Uh, you know, once, once the deity that you knew when I couldn’t define God for me anymore. And that was really hard. So I’m a little curious. I want to go about to your, just your description of the rabbi because there appears to be such a, a broad difference between your experience, both of your experiences, um, with Orthodox Judaism and the, um, the role of the rabbi. And that of Mormonism. Um, so tell me, tell, tell me, tell the listeners a little bit about rabbis. How long do they go to school? What training do they have that allows them to have that role where you could go to them and say, “Hey, a rabbi, I’m struggling with this. I’m struggling with my mental health. How do I work through it?”

Leon: 14:17 Yechiel, this one’s for you.

Yechiel: 14:18 Yeah. It’s interesting because there is nothing in the formal training of a rabbi that actually prepares them for that. The actual formal training is like purely the legal aspects of it. Like knowing how to, you know, is a kosher or not, you know, it was a, you know, what am I allowed to do on Shabbat? What am I not allowed to do? You know, the sort of the, the, the legal aspects of the questions that they might ask you. But then like I said, you know, every rabbi of a congregation has to deal with all these other issues that come up and that pretty much comes, you know, that there is no formal training for that, that they, that you have to pick up. You know, most rabbis will spend time, uh, under, you know, sort of as assistant grab buys, helping out other communities and picking up and you know, the, those are things… These are things you can quantify. You can’t teach them in a classroom, have empathy and relating to people on communication skills. These aren’t things that you can teach. You have them or you don’t. Obviously you can perfect them, you can make them better. And someone who will struggle with that, we’ll just realize early on that being a rabbi is not for them. So it’s sort of a self selecting role where the most successful rabbis are the ones who are most respected for the reasons that Leon mentioned because they have this empathy because they have these people skills because they have these connecting abilities to bring people together and to really get down to what people are.

Josh: 15:56 So our rabbi is, uh, the role of a rabbi is not assigned? It is something you pursue.

Yechiel: 16:02 Yes.

Leon: 16:03 Right. I also before it, before people recoil from, from their ear, you know, their earbuds and they go, “Oh my gosh, they were completely untrained and to do this”, the rabbi isn’t necessarily one who is going to try to fix these, these issues, these mental health issues or whatever, but they’re in a position where as you feel said, they can listen, uh, empathetically and they can be a sounding board to say, “This is not, you know, this isn’t typical.” This isn’t a a… I hate to say normal response, but this isn’t a common response to these situations and let’s help find someone to talk to. And rabbis regularly do, you know, uh, recommend people to therapists and psych, you know, psychologists and psychiatrists, to marriage counselors and to, uh, you know, personal counselors as well and say, let’s, you know, they, they don’t try to tackle… In the same way they wouldn’t try to tackle a myocardial infarction, you know, a heart attack and say, “okay, I can Torah this!” Like, no, that’s not, you know, they’re going to say this is not good physical health. We’re going to call an ambulance now. They also, but, but people are often more comfortable sharing their mental state with them and therefore they can be the point to say, you know, as another human listening, “You know what, I think we need to get someone else involved. Let’s, let’s do that.”

Josh: 17:35 So. again, we’re trying to, to interweave our religion and our IT communities. And so this role of a rabbi is very interesting to me. I’m wondering if there is an equivalent when we’re with mental health and our IT communities, like is there like, do we have those that, that rabbinical role or do we have, you know, in the context of Mormonism, do we have that, that role of Bishop or stake president, which if you’re Catholic, a stake president is like a, uh, an Archbishop. Uh, I don’t know what the, the Jewish equivalent of that is, but like, uh, you don’t have one.

Leon: 18:10 There ain’t none. There’s no organizational structure. That’s another misconception is that there’s some, you know, pan galactic, Jewish organism. Forget about the conspiracy theories. You know, there, there’s really, I mean, you’ve never seen anything quite so disorganized until you get into Orthodox Judaism. It’s…

Yechiel: 18:29 uh, but to answer your question about, um, what would be started the equivalent role in it, uh, I think a, a good manager would recognize if one of their teammates, you know, is taking on too much, seems to be burning out or it seems to just be stretched too thin or just in general it seems to be down and will call them out on it and tell them, you know, take a sick day, take a mental health day, you know, if they see other problems, persistent, talk to someone. Um, obviously the workplace has, you know, I’m lucky to work at a company that values mental health and you know, and it shows both like in the benefits that they offer and the health insurance that they offer and you know, they offer counseling and things like that. Um, so I think definitely workplaces have a lot to… Have a big role to play in here. And started and a direct equivalent to the rabbi job, the mat, you know, a manager has direct responsibility for their reports.

Leon: 19:25 So I also think that, um, it, you know, we, I think we all know that that manager, you can have good managers. I think that, um, a whole other podcast or entire podcast series on the types of managers we’ve had. And yes, Josh, I’m in the middle of reading the manager’s path. So based on, from your recommendations. So, uh, you know, the good and bad managers all around. But I also think that, um, mentors, which is much more self-selective have the opportunity to, to be that sounding board. Um, someone who knows you, who understands what you’re going through, who understands that in a professional context, but is able to say, um, as we said at the top of the show, it’s one thing to be a little tired or a little upset or a little frustrated, but when that turns into, you know, longterm exhaustion or rage or anxiety, that’s, you know, sort of a tipping point and a mentor, maybe the person who is able to say, “No, no, no, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve seen this, or I’d had this and I can tell you right now, this is, you know, let’s, let’s do something about it.”

Josh: 20:32 I’ve been pretty fortunate to have really good managers, um, for the past five years. I mean, that’s not to say that my managers and the previous 15, uh, weren’t, weren’t, uh, good. Uh, or in some cases even, you know, Leon, you and I, uh, shared a manager. Uh, Andy was an outstanding individual. Still is. He’s not changed a bit. I mean, he’s still outstanding. Um, I’ve had, uh, two other managers since Andy transitioned away from our team into another team. Uh, both of whom I’ve been able to talk openly about my mental health and my depression. And to the point of mentors. I recently picked up a mentor. I reached out to somebody that I’d worked with, a director. And in our first conversation I was able to say to, you know, to this individual, Rob, look, I want to tell you that I, you know, I struggle with depression. I’ve, I’ve got some mental health challenges that that is part of who I am and it, it helps me to be who I am, but sometimes it also inhibits me. And I think to the point of this, this whole podcast, if we can fight the stigma of so many other things, uh, right. My oldest son has autism. When he was diagnosed, uh, more than 20 years ago. Um, the stigma around autism was, O”h, they are cold, um, isolationist individuals. They have, you know, there’s nothing going on. Um, you know, all you can do is either medicate or give them intense therapy and that’s the only way to save them”. Um, w we bucked the system on all of those and now we’re having discussions around, well, look, the autism is a spectrum and there are some people on the autistic spectrum that if we just removed the things that they struggle with, they can do exemplary work. Um, and I think that, I think that we’ll mature, um, as a society where we look at mental health and we say, look, there are some things that we can remove and that when we remove those barriers that we have more people that can contribute to the well being of society. Um, I mean, I, I, I guess I’m very fortunate. Yechiel used a term, uh, earlier where you said, um, from a position of privilege, and I think that I have often operated from that position of privilege when it comes to the, the immediate managers I’ve had.

Leon: 23:12 So I just, uh, offering, um, a point of perspective is that I, I still think that in it mental health, talking about mental health is a challenge. I don’t want to diminish that or be Pollyanna about it. It’s, you know, there’s a lot of people walking around in a lot of different companies or teams who know, not just suspect, but know that there is nothing, there’s no way they can talk about it. Um, and I think that especially in parts of the it community, that are already struggling with toxic masculinity and brogrammer culture that’s just not gonna happen. Um, however, I have seen enough discussions about burnout, um, about dealing with poor workplace habits or teams or processes. I’ve seen social media discussions tagged with the #FightTheStigma hashtag, you know, I’ve seen enough of that to know that there is a shift taking place, this podcast, you know, not the least among those things that this is a conversation that more people are insisting that we have. Um, to put it out in the open to say this is a thing that happens. Again, Josh just, you know, in the same way that once upon a time people didn’t dare talk about a child with autism. Now it’s, you know, I was talking to somebody the other day who was on a flight and they were sitting next to… She, she works with, uh, exclusively with, with, uh, adults and kids with autism. And she was sitting on a flight next to somebody who was just coming with their child from having gotten a diagnosis and without thinking, she says, “Oh my gosh, that’s wonderful! That’s so exciting!” Because in her perspective, working with these folks all day long, every day, they are joyful and fun and creative and interesting in ways that neuro-typical people just aren’t. And you know, she just, and she said, “I actually had to check myself for a minute because I realized that they had just gotten this diagnosis. They were just wrapping their head around it. And my unabashed enthusiasm was probably not taken the way that I meant it.” Um, so in that same way that they’re, you know, that, that reaction to families who have individual with autism in it, I think that, you know, the more we talk about it, the more that we bring it out there and talk about our individual experiences. Um, I, I do also want to bring up something that I had seen a friend say earlier, which is that as much as we encourage people who may be, uh, dealing with depression or are struggling with, um, you know, just emotions that they can’t even quantify, um, and saying, you know, “if you’re not sure what to do, get help…”, We acknowledge, or at least I acknowledge that I may be adding fuel to the fire because in those moments, movement, emotional or even physical movement, maybe the hardest thing to do and not being able to do that may feed into that depressive cycle that you’re experiencing. So, um, you know, get the help that you can. Be kind to yourself in the same way that you would be kind to anybody else in your world. Uh, again, from our religious tradition, I think that we are taught, we are, we are told, we are commanded to give the benefit of the doubt, to be kind to both our neighbors and the the strangers, in our community. And yet that is the thing that we are most reluctant sometimes to give ourselves. So if it helps at all, treat yourself like a stranger. To, you know, if you say, “I don’t even know who I am.” Okay, fair enough. Then then get to know whoever that weirdo is looking at you in the mirror and treat them with the kindness that you would treat anybody else who showed up at your doorstep in need.

Josh: 27:05 My wife, uh, she was a great example to me today. We, we have, uh, some, some, uh, friends who recently lost a child, um, in a very traumatic way and child, but he was an adult, a young adult and it was difficult for my wife to, to talk with this other woman. She was obviously struggling with the scenario of, you know, life without this child who had this wonderfully infectious smile. Um, he was just a joy to be around. He was very hyper, very, very hyper. Uh, but he always made people smile and always made people laugh. And as I watched my wife, um, you know, the, the, the thing you don’t want to say to somebody, and this is to your point, is well, what can I do for you? Because the answer is I don’t know. I don’t know how to help. And so my wife said, “Look, if you need someone to talk to, please call me. Or if you need someone to listen, please call me. Just know that I’m here.” And I thought, wow, that is such a powerful thing. It’s so simple. But you, as you said, Leon, we often are not willing to give of ourselves in that way. Um, so to all of our listeners, you know, be present for those among your coworkers and your community, whether it’s IT or religious, I think that’s powerful, right? I, I hope that our IT communities get better, uh, get more authentic and maybe less competitive. I think that’ll do a lot for our mental health. Here’s what I’ll say. Um, when I started my religious community, which I have, uh, which I wrapped up now that, that I’m in a different place. Um, the tagline was, “You are not alone.” Um, so if nothing else today, I hope that our listeners, well, we’ll take that and remember, you are not alone. Um, life is a journey. Sometimes we pull off at a rest top and we can rest. Other times we press on even when we should have pulled off to rest. Um, do not walk the journey alone. Your path looks different than my path. Looks different than Yechiel’s path or Leon’s path. But we’re all on this journey together. Um, if you are struggling, if you need someone to, to or reach out, reach out to us via email, our Twitter DMs are open. LinkedIn. Heck, you can even look me up on the phone book because Prince Edward Island still has a phone book. It’s crazy. I know, but um, just remember that you’re not alone. You’re not alone and uh, people, people will be there for you.

Leon: 30:06 Thanks for making time for us this week to hear more of Technically Religious visited our website, where you can find our other episodes, leave us ideas for future discussions and connect us on social media.

Josh: 30:18 At Technically religious. We usually have something funny to say at this point in the show, but mental health is nothing to take lightly. If you are struggling, please reach out to a family member, friend or a healthcare professional. If you are in crisis, please seek immediate medical attention. You are not alone. Fight the stigma.

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