They call Jill 'Messiah' because she breaks taboo of mental illness

Doreen Wachmann chats to a courageous grandmother who has twice been confronted with mental illness among her loved ones

RELATIVES of the mentally ill call South African-born Israeli grandmother Jill Sadowsky the Messiah because she has dared to speak out about the taboo subjects of mental illness and suicide.

Septuagenarian Jill Sadowsky has just been awarded an Israeli Ministry of Health award for speaking out on the subject after she published the story of her son David, who committed suicide after suffering from schizophrenia for 16 years.

The problems began in 1980 when Jill's first-born and only son David was serving in the Israel Defence Forces.

In her recently published e-book, David's Story, Jill recalls how her son initially complained after being forced against his will into an officers' course which added an extra year to his military service.

Four months later, David tried to overdose himself.

His stomach was pumped out in a military hospital. Within days he was returned to his unit where he supposedly received psychiatric treatment about which the army refused to give any details to his parents.

Neither was his extremely high health profile lowered as a result.

Jill said: "David was physically fit when discharged from the military after serving his three years, but mentally he was missing in action."

The book recounts a series of disasters as Israeli doctor after doctor and hospital after hospital failed to even diagnose David's condition and consequently find any effective treatment.

In 1996, David could bear it no longer and ended his young life, aged 34.

The 16 years of David's mental illness placed an unbearable strain on his parents and two sisters as they struggled to cope not only with his erratic and sometimes dangerous behaviour but also with the failure of the Israeli medics to offer David and his family any meaningful support.

Jill, who enjoyed writing, coped during this extremely traumatic period by making regular notes of the ongoing situation.

She said: "I kept little notes because I was desperate. I had to get it out somehow. I never dreamed I would write a book.

"I never dreamed I would put it out there for everybody to see.

"But I realised after he died that people won't talk out about mental illness. There is blame, shame and stigma because parents don't speak out."

Another help was ENOSH, the Israel Mental Health Association founded by Chanita Rodney, a Holocaust refugee who took shelter during World War Two with a Liverpool Jewish family before making aliyah, only to find that her daughter Rina developed schizophrenia after her discharge from the Israeli army.

But Jill says: "It's not only because of the army. Mental illness is everywhere. People don't want to talk about it, that's why I'm talking and writing about it.

"It could happen if there is a divorce in the family, because of a disappointment or a girl friend. Anything can trigger it off in someone with that sensitivity."

She added: "You can't believe how many suicides there are in the American army. In our day parents never went near the Israeli army. Now they've softened up a bit.

"Today parents can go and talk to a commanding officer. In our day they just didn't let you in.

"They do not want to recognise mental illness because it costs money to pay compensation."

But she admitted: "Everything is much better now. I was the first one to talk out. You cannot cure schizophrenia, but you can bring it under control.

"But someone like my son, who was medication resistant, you can't heal anyway. No medication that he tried helped him. No one could have helped him.

"I ask that question every time I give a talk at a psychiatric hospital.

"But some mentally ill can be helped, brought to a stable position and life in the community.

"Some do marry people like themselves."

Jill only began to speak out in public about mental illness after David died.

She said: "I didn't go public while he was alive. It wasn't fair. I had to wait."

But her family were open about David's condition with their immediate contacts.

She said: "My husband used to tell his clients at work that he had to visit his son in a psychiatric hospital. He didn't think there was a need to keep it secret.

"He said that if it were David's heart, not his brain, what's the difference?"

Jill also formed an English-speaking group of ENOSH for Anglo-Saxon immigrants like herself.

Before David died, he was assessed by a social worker with a view to being one of the first residents of a Galilee village for people suffering from mental health problems.

Sadly, David did not live to see Kishorit see the light of day. But after his tragic death, Jill was asked by the kibbutz founders to speak at the Knesset to try to persuade the Jewish Agency to grant the village a permit.

Jill said: "My family thought I should give the talk. It was very hard for me. The Jewish Agency said that people with mental illness could not run a kibbutz.

"They have been proved wrong. They gave a permit after my talk. Kishorit residents now have a good quality of life in a protected environment. The place in the Galilee hills is fantastic.

"They breed dogs and horses, grow organic stuff and have a factory to make wooden toys and equipment. It is just amazing.

"People come from all over. Al Gore's wife had a brother with mental illness who came to live there. Each resident has their own carer, psychologist, mental health professional."

Following her first public appearance, Jill began to get calls from people all over the world crying out for help for their relations with mental health problems.

She now has her own blog on the subject -

She says: "I'm collecting more and more people through my blog. I have a lot of followers now all over the world who are helping me speak out about it.

"I hear the most terrible stories. Anybody in trouble comes to me. I do this because I've been there and I don't want anyone not to have someone to talk to.

"Before I found the support group we were in the dark."

And Jill's personal troubles did not stop. Two years ago, her husband Michael died from Alzheimer's disease.

She says: "I've been through two brain illnesses."

But she added cheerfully: "It's not what happens to you in life but how you deal with it. I have no option. I have two daughters and five lovely grandchildren.

"I decided to live and be happy for now and not drag anyone else down with me.

"I still tutor English. I'm trying every day to find something good, something happy."

Happiness certainly came to her with last month's Knesset award. She has also been nominated for Volunteer of the Year by the South African Zionist Federation.

She said: "I feel they're talking about someone else. There was a big fuss about my Knesset award in the papers. I'm drowning after the Knesset award and the double page spread in local papers.

"I had more than 200 phone calls from people who thought I was the Messiah. It was very emotional.

"My email inbox crashed and I nearly crashed with it. But I will reply to every single one, return every single call because I have been there and know what it's like.

"I get mails from Bangladesh, Africa and the USA. They all want to hear someone speaking out about reducing the stigma."

David's Story is available on Kindle.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph