Reality Check

By Jennifer Bitton

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“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation, about illnesses that affect not only individuals but their families as well.” -Actress Glenn Close, the inspiration for No Shame On U

In America, one out of four adults is living with a mental illness. Despite the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders, the stigma of mental illness can prevent people from reaching out and getting the help they need, even from their own families. In fact, approximately 60% of adults with a mental illness don’t receive any Mental Health Services.” -National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

“More than 1 out of every 100 people who die- die by suicide. That is more than those who die by car accidents. More than one in four Americans, ages 18 and older live with a diagnosable mental illness. And we know that the majority of them do not seek treatment.” -Miriam Ament, Founder of No Shame On U

When I read these statistics, the large amount of people living with mental illness doesn’t surprise me. It also doesn’t surprise me that such a large percentage of those with mental health issues don’t receive help. Mental illness has always carried a stigma because it is commonly perceived as a character flaw or something that a person could just “snap out” if they only were mentally stronger. Would you tell a person with a heart condition to just “snap out of it?” I understand, it is a bit more complicated than that, but it doesn’t have to be. The brain is definitely much more complicated than the heart. Our brains are what give us the ability to act and react, to think and feel and have memories. However, it is important to remember that our brains are not who we are. Who we truly are cannot be defined. Our brain is only is a tool, like every other part of the body, to help us navigate through our world. With this in mind, shouldn’t mental health be something that is discussed openly and with less judgment?

There are times when we come across a person who has lived through a major challenge, learned from it, and then used those lessons to inspire and help others going through the same thing. However, it is a lot less common to find those willing to share personal struggles with mental illness. Most of the people I know with mental illness would not publicly discuss their illness out of fear of judgment or rejection. This week’s interviewee is a truly humble and courageous woman. After much introspection, she spoke out about her struggles with severe depression, and although she also feared what others would think, she rose above it to help destigmatize mental illness in the Jewish community. She has dedicated herself to eliminating these stigmas in the Jewish community through her nonprofit organization, No Shame On U.

Meet Miriam Ament:

Miriam Aliza Ament was born on May 13, 1971 in Skokie, Illinois. Her parents, Joseph and Susan Ament, raised Miriam and her two older brothers in Highland Park, IL. She attended Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School and Ida Crown Jewish Academy for high school. Their home was dedicated to Jewish education, the Jewish community, and Jewish values. Education was a top priority.

“I was a goodie-two-shoes really, a rule follower. Even at camp, counselors loved me because I would be at the activity on time and all that.” Miriam laughed. “I wasn’t perfect, but by and large I was a good kid and a good student. I have two older brothers and I was the younger sister. They did well in school, so it was expected that I would do well too. It didn’t bother me, it was just the way it was.”

I asked Miriam to tell me some of her best childhood memories. “I was a really lucky kid. We were a close family. We did a lot of fun things and went on a lot of trips. Passover was great at my house. My parents would always have a lot of people. There was a lot of singing and a ton of fun. My brothers would make a treasure hunt leading up to finding the afikoman. There was so much excitement leading up to it.” Miriam’s high school experience was a typical healthy and happy one. She had a lot of friends and was excelling academically. Looking back now, she recognizes there were small signs of depression during high school. “I do remember feelings of isolation and feeling down. At the time, I didn’t realize it was the beginnings of depression.”

After high school, Miriam went to Israel and studied at Brovenders Seminary in Yerushalayim. It was that first year in Israel when the depression began to settle in. “I made great friends that year that I am still friends with, but I was crying all the time. I was living with depression and had many down times, but I was still able to function.” Following her year in Israel, Miriam attended Barnard College in New York. It was an especially stressful time. Trying to incorporate the new religious information from Israel and balance the competitive and high-pressure college lifestyle only helped to intensify her feelings of anxiety and depression. “It was a whole new sort of world. It was a larger school with a lot more people. I grew up in a smaller Jewish community in Chicago where it was easier to make friends. Barnard was a larger school, and I became shyer. I made friends, but I wasn’t as comfortable. Its all par for the course.” Miriam used the counseling services while at Barnard but didn’t go often enough. She went only when feeling down. Now, she recognizes that she should have gone more often, but at the time, she didn’t take it seriously. Miriam finished her time at Barnard with a degree in American History.

After Barnard, at the age of 22, Miriam went to a program in Israel called Otzmah (Strength). It was a program for kids from America. She would spend time on a kibbutz and would then be placed in a youth Aliyah village. The program ended up being a tough experience for Miriam.“I didn’t get a good vibe from the beginning before we even left New York. I didn’t listen to my gut. I only cared about following through but didn’t listen to my inner voice. I felt alone and isolated, and I felt different coming from a more observant environment. I was afraid to veer off and change my plan and disappoint people.”

It was then that Miriam spiraled into a deeper depression. Miriam’s parents visited and recognized that she needed to switch programs and start over. Miriam stayed in Israel where she went to Pardes Institute of Jewish studies, worked part-time, and also began therapy. The experience at Pardes was good. Miriam connected with good teachers, good friends, and a therapist. Eventually, Miriam went back to New York. She had some interest in law, because both her dad and brother were lawyers, and began work as a paralegal at Sullivan and Cromwell, a law firm on the upper west side of Manhattan. “I ended up on a case where I was managing a group of contract paralegals and lawyers. It was intense work and a lot of overtime. I was really focused, and it was a good fit for me. I enjoyed organizing and managing, and I decided to go to Columbia’s Teachers College for an MA in Organizational Psychology.” Shortly after, Miriam began work for a recruiting company. At one point in her career, the economy wasn’t doing well, and there were not so many recruiting jobs. Since she also had a passion for pop culture, she got part-time work in casting calls for television shows. “Everything was going great. I had done well in school and I felt good physically and mentally. However, things began spiraling again when I saw that all of my friends were either married or getting married. It started hitting me that I was not in that place yet.” This depression was debilitating enough that it led to Miriam’s first hospitalization for depression. This first stay was short and Miriam eventually ended up, for a second time within two months, back in the hospital.

For years after, Miriam didn’t tell anyone, except for the very few family and friends who knew at the time, about her mental health condition or hospitalizations. After the second hospitalization, Miriam decided to make a fresh start in Los Angeles. She enjoyed her casting work in New York and decided to continue this in LA. Although things were initially going well, Miriam began to realize that depression is an illness that needs constant support and resources. With the help of a good friend from Chicago who frequently visited, Miriam recognized that she needed to take control of her illness, and home was the only place where she could accomplish this. Miriam moved back to Chicago and within a year was hospitalized for the third time.

It was during this time that Miriam learned about the value of a good therapist and strictly adhering to her medication regimens. Through all of these difficult times, one lesson made a lasting impression on Miriam. She never expected to face such stigma and isolation from family and close friends. “During my second hospitalization, I received a phone call from one of my then closest friends who said ‘I only want to talk to you when you’re happy, so let’s not talk again for a while.’ I never heard from her again. I always knew there were strong stigmas attached to mental health, but hearing this sentiment from a close friend magnified my feelings of isolation. Would she have said that to me if I was in the hospital because of a broken leg or diabetes?”

Miriam wanted these stigmas to end. In the fall of 2013, Miriam won a silent auction to be in a movie with actress Glenn Close. The movie deal fell through, but Glenn Close took Miriam to lunch instead. Miriam knew that the actress was a huge mental health advocate because she has close family members living with mental illness. Except for the few who knew at the time, Miriam had never told anyone her story until that day at lunch. Glenn Close inspired Miriam to begin to tell her story and help the Jewish community move past their shame and stigmas.

In 2014, Miriam founded No Shame On U. She quit her law firm job, and now dedicates all of her time to No Shame On U. Their mission is, “To help eliminate the stigma associated with mental health conditions and raise awareness in the Jewish community and beyond. The goal is for the people who need help to seek it, for family members and friends to know how to provide proper support and to save lives.” I asked Miriam who she admires most in the world. “My mother was diagnosed a couple of months ago with a brain tumor. She was so brave. She had every reason to freak out. I’m in awe of how she handled it. She could not have been braver or more courageous. It ended up being benign, but in a bad spot that was a risky surgery. This began a newfound respect that I had for her. She showed such strength and courage.”

Next, I asked Miriam what people in our community should be aware of when it comes to mental health awareness. “In the same way you get treated for a physical condition, mental health is essentially a physical condition. There should be no shame in that or stigma. I know this is easier said than done. I know that in shidduchim it’s about the history of the family, and how worried people are if a family member had a history of mental health issues. It doesn’t mean that someone is going to have it and no one has 100% health in any way, shape, or form. It shouldn’t be treated differently than any other physical condition. Mental health conditions are treatable and there should be no shame in treating it. Today, Miriam lives in Chicago with her husband, David Forman.

Miriam’s advice to the world: “You never know who you’re going to meet and how that will impact the rest of your life. So use every opportunity to learn from one another.”

For more information about No Shame On U go to www.noshameonu.org

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