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Why Jews Make Good Therapy Patients

A study of elderly New Yorkers found Jews are more open to sharing their feelings and concerns, and more confident in a therapist’s ability to help.
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Much has been written about the reluctance of African Americans to seek help from psychotherapists. But when it comes to getting professional treatment for anxiety, depression, or other mental-health disorders, the biggest divide may not be between blacks and whites, but between Jews and everyone else.

A study of elderly New Yorkers, just published in the Journal of Religion and Health finds “Jews had greater confidence in a therapist’s ability to help, were more tolerant of stigma, and more open to sharing their feelings and concerns” than either blacks or non-Jewish whites.

Given this accepting attitude, lumping in Jews with the overall white population may make studies comparing racial attitudes towards therapy misleading, according to a research team led by Elizabeth Midlarsky of Columbia University. While certain shared attitudes make the black community unsympathetic toward therapists and their clients, much the same can be said for mainstream white culture.

Psychologist Monnica Williams' research has found that “even among African Americans who suffered greatly from mental disorders, many held negative attitudes about people who obtain mental health care,” as she noted on the Psychology Today website last year. “No matter how impaired they were, they didn’t want to be one of ‘those people.’”

Midlarsky and her colleagues argue many Americans from European Christian backgrounds regard therapy in similarly negative terms. “White culture values the ‘rugged individualist’ who is self-reliant, independent, autonomous and reluctant to appear helpless, weak and dependent on others,” they write. “Such individualism appears to stand in direct contrast to help-seeking for mental health concerns.”

In contrast, “Jewish culture is relatively accepting of psychotherapy,” the researchers write. Others take that argument farther: Last year, Tufts University psychiatrist Ronald Pies pointed out strong similarities between cognitive-behavioral therapy and ancient Jewish teachings.

To discover where the fault lines really fall, Midlarsky and her colleagues surveyed 307 older New Yorkers (ages 65 to 94) who “were perceived by a mental health professional to have psychological problems.” Roughly half the subjects were black; among the whites, approximately half were Jewish.

All were interviewed in person, in their homes. Questions were designed to measure their attitudes towards psychotherapy and the degree to which they hold themselves personally responsible for both the cause and solution of their problems.

“When compared to non-Jewish whites, the Jewish people in our study were more confident in a therapist’s ability to be of help, more tolerant of any stigma associated with mental-health seeking, and were higher on interpersonal openness,” the researchers write.

“Furthermore, Jewish participants were not likely to perceive themselves as responsible for the cause of their problems, but were significantly more likely to perceive themselves as responsible for solutions when compared to both non-Jewish whites and blacks.”

Such an attitude provides an excellent foundation for therapeutic work, which downplays blame and teaches people how to better manage life’s inevitable ups and downs.

Midlarsky and her colleagues still found differences between blacks and whites, even when removing religion from the equation. The stigma surrounding therapy remained higher among blacks, and confidence in psychotherapists lower. This is consistent with Williams’ research, which reports reluctance among African Americans to talk about personal problems, as well as a fear of racism on the part of white mental-health professionals.

Of course, it would be interesting to conduct a larger survey and pinpoint attitudes towards therapy in a range of religions and cultures. But at least among this older population, blacks seem to be the least receptive toward getting help from a therapist, Jews the most receptive, and non-Jewish whites somewhere in between.

The differences seem to be mainly a matter of societal norms. As the researchers note, Jewish culture “encourages introspection and self-knowledge” and “places a positive value on help-seeking behavior.”

As American cinema's archetypal Jewish therapy patient, Woody Allen, told New York magazine in 2008: “I've had a very productive life. I've worked very hard, I've never fallen prey to depression. I'm not sure I could have done all of that without being in psychoanalysis. People say to me, ‘It's just a crutch,’ and exactly what I need at this point in my life is a crutch.”