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Another Voice: President could elevate our mental health discussions

By Barbara J. Ostfeld

I’m a Buffalonian who shops at Wegmans, visits Canalside and eats sponge candy. But I’m also a woman who was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1975. I’m a synagogue cantor (retired now) who has learned to pay sharp attention to the offhand remarks that people make.

On New Year’s Eve, a Fox News reporter asked President Trump to assess Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s opinion of her chances of winning the presidency in the 2020 election. The president replied that he couldn’t speculate about it. He then suggested posing the question to Warren’s psychiatrist.

What did our president mean when he referred to Ms. Warren’s theoretical psychiatrist?

I believe he meant to imply that the senator might have a mental disorder. Since there is no evidence that Warren has obtained treatment from a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a social worker, her mental health doesn’t seem to be an issue. She has, though, said the following:

“Our mental health care system needs more funding to provide a higher quality of care and services.”

In 2016, she and four senate colleagues filed legislation aimed at helping patients receive mental health care coverage. Warren herself doesn’t seem to need mental health care, but since Mr. Trump invoked the subject, let’s all pay sharp attention.

Many U.S. citizens struggle with various kinds of mental disorders and many more are grateful for targeted research and for subsequent advances in treatment. Don’t we all know someone who lives with acute anxiety or depression? Don’t we all know someone with an eating disorder or someone fighting addictive behaviors?

While as a clergywoman I am not qualified to evaluate the underlying scientific evidence, my 40-plus years in congregational life have shown me what happens to people who get psychiatric help. Over and over I have watched as they not only get better, they become better.

There was a time when I myself had to muster up the courage to get help. I was in my early 20s and I started to get better. (I endured sexual trauma in my teens and managed to ignore it for decades.) Equally important is the fact that I have become a better person with the help of psychiatrists and psychologists. Working to regain mental health is the hardest process in which I’ve ever engaged. It’s ongoing and I’m proud to tell all of Buffalo that I have a psychiatrist at age 66.

If President Trump were to openly support funding for mental health research and treatment, were he to promote improved access to mental health services, Buffalonians and all citizens between the redwood forest and the gulf stream waters could anticipate a better 2019.

Barbara J. Ostfeld is the first ordained female cantor in Jewish history. Her memoir, “Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim,” will be published in February.

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