Dr. Steven Pirutinsky
Dr. Steven PirutinskyCourtesy

New research my colleagues and I published this week in Transcultural Psychiatry showed that Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox people are remarkably similar when it comes to deciding to seek therapy, sticking with therapy over time and willingness to use prescription medications for mental health.

This mild statement invalidates a decades-old stereotype that Orthodox Jews are resistant to mental health treatment. In reality, Orthodox patients had fewer symptoms when they started mental health treatment than the non-Orthodox control group, indicating a willingness to seek care before their issues became overwhelming. They also stayed in therapy for more sessions.

It is tempting to look for demographic differences that led to this surprising research result, however, the Orthodox Jewish group and the control group were demographically similar in terms of gender, age, income, or employment status. The study also compared modern Orthodox and Haredi Jews and found that they also were similar.

Clearly, the myth that Orthodox Jews are resistant to mental healthcare is outdated and out of place. Reinforcing that outmoded stereotype in the media and other forums only provokes anxiety and unnecessary fear of stigma.

Instead, let’s explore why Orthodox Jews are unexpectedly receptive to mental health treatment and how we can use this information to improve care.

First the historic role of mentorship in the Jewish community and cultural value of seeking self-knowledge make people more likely to seek out expert advice. Also, Jewish culture and halakhah highly prioritize preservation of health. This religious obligation may be particularly important to the Orthodox community and may encourage members to seek treatment or therapy, despite concerns regarding stigma.

These findings should prove especially useful to therapists and community mental health programs who are reaching out to engage those at risk. They can assume that people are more willing to seek treatment than previously expected. It’s also important for therapists treating people who express concerns about stigma to explore the issue with the specific individual and not to automatically attribute these concerns to religion or culture.

While therapists should be sensitive to religious patients, exceptional accommodations to maintain privacy and encourage adherence may be unnecessary, since these might interfere with treatment and could increase communication stigma and reinforce negative and outdated beliefs.

It is time to stop reinforcing yesterday’s stereotypes so that we can give today’s patients the treatment they want and need.

Dr. Steven Tzvi Pirutinsky, is an associate professor at Touro College Graduate School of Social Work.