By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
Depression is laughable.
It’s a bold statement. But it is one that Jewish author John Shuchart of Leawood, Kan., thinks could positively impact the 14.8 million American adults who suffer from depression. Shuchart, a successful entrepreneur and insurance salesman, retired and put any future career ambitions on hold to focus on a fight that is near to his heart: the stigma and treatment of mental illness.
Four years ago, Shuchart himself was in such a deep depression that he nearly attempted suicide. After researching methods for killing oneself online, he decided carbon monoxide poisoning would be one of the easier and less painful ways to do it—parking his car in an enclosed area and turning on the engine.
“All that was left for me was to find a place where I could park my car and not be discovered until it was over,” Shuchart tells JNS.org.
Since he did not want his wife to have the trauma of discovering him, Shuchart’s own garage was not an option. He contemplated friends’ and enemies’ garages, but also could not come up with a plan. Then he discovered a storage facility near his house, which would be perfect.
“I clicked on the website and saw that they were running a special: Sign a two-year contract and get the first month’s rent, free. … This was great. And then something very unexpected happened: I began laughing and I couldn’t stop,” recalls Shuchart.
There he was, contemplating suicide, yet looking for the best deal on a garage.
“I was concerned about the freaking cost,” he says.
As Shuchart laughed, the sadness went away. The laughter removed some of the pain. He called his friend to tell him and they laughed together. And the laughter saved his life.
Now, Shuchart wants to help others get the help they need before it is too late. He says that mental illness often goes untreated because people are too embarrassed to talk about it.
“We have to come out of the closet,” he says.
According to National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), only one out of two people with a serious form of mental illness seeks treatment for the disorder. The organization cites stigma as a leading deterrent to care.
Shuchart recently self-published a book, “You are not the brightest of my four sons,” that demonstrates how he uses humor and reframing in his struggles with mental illness, its stigma, and the words that hurt. The stories in the book are all true for Shuchart, told in his words and through his lens. Some of the tales of verbal abuse are outlandish—such as when his mother tells him, “I think you have a right brain, left brain problem,” and sends him to learn to use his non-dominant hand—that one might assume embellishment or fiction.
“Every single word is true,” Shuchart says. “This is about pain and depression and what happens when words hurt.”
Further, Shuchart is working closely with the Greater Kansas City Mental Health Coalition (GKCMHC), which he helped found, to get the word out. He has been on dozens of speaking tours, and book sales benefit the coalition or other related non-profits that try to fight the stigma of mental illness.
Kim Romary, GKCMHC’s coordinator, says the coalition got started because there were many others like Shuchart who felt they did not have the communal support they needed to deal with their own mental illness or the mental illness of a loved one. Many, says Romary, felt embarrassed or ostracized.
“A lot of the issues people were having in the community came back to stigma and an unwillingness to talk about it,” Romary says.
The coalition started in 2013 as a joint project of Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City and the local rabbinical association, with an anti-stigma campaign during the High Holidays. After word of a three-postcard mailing campaign, posters, banners, and pulpit speeches made its way to the non-Jewish community, several other religious and related organizations got on board. Today, the 19-partner coalition includes mental health leaders such as Catholic Charities and the local chapter of NAMI, as well as the area’s largest mental health hospitals and practices.
Statistically, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 43.7 million (18.6 percent) of Americans ages 18 and up have experienced some form of mental illness in their lives. Shuchart says that number is equivalent, if not higher, in the Jewish community.
The good news is that if people get the help they need, they can manage their condition. A combination of medication and various forms of therapy has been proven to support a lifestyle of wellness and recovery. Humor is also a factor, as Shuchart recommends.
Comedian David Naster has done several shows on the benefits of humor to make bad times better. He tells JNS.org that humor cannot reverse bad times, but does make them more manageable. A recent study by the University of Oxford found that laughing produces the same endorphins in the brain as exercise. Endorphins are pain-relieving chemicals.
Shuchart and Naster are currently working on a continuing education credit course for clinicians that will help them to infuse more laughter therapy into their treatment plans.
For now, however, Shuchart says he just wants people to be aware.
As Romary suggests, “Start the conversation. It’s real, but it’s OK.”
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