This coming Monday evening, December 17th, at 8:00 PM, the Baltimore community will host an event of critical importance to the Orthodox Jewish Community. The goal is to raise awareness of mental health issues in our community and to provide detailed information as to how one can seek professional assistance for those in need. The title of the event is: One Crucial Night to Raise Mental Health Awareness. It will be held at Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion synagogue in Baltimore. The program will stream LIVE on TorahAnytime.com, TheYeshivaWorld.com and Matzav.com. The event was planned by Mrs. Suzann Lasson MOTR/L, an occupational therapist with a specialty in behavioral health at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric hospital with 15 years’ experience in facilitating group psycho-social therapy groups and individual therapy. Her co-organizers included Rabbi Yisrael Slansky, Director of Baltimore’s RELIEF Resources Services, and Eric Reitberger, president of Bikur Cholim of Baltimore.
In addition to raising mental health awareness the program will seek to reduce stigma; increase community support; and encourage people to seek treatment, therapy and medication to enable them to live mentally healthy and productive lives. Education packets, brochures, and handouts will be available for download with information on an array of topics including warning signs, myths about mental illness and psychotherapy, and a list of local organizations that provide mental health services.
The first speaker will be Rabbi Ephraim Eliyahu Shapiro, Mara D’Asra of Shaaray Tefilah Congregation in North Miami Beach, Florida, a world-renowned speaker. His topic will be: The importance of getting help from a Torah perspective. The second speaker will be Dr. Norman Blumenthal, psychologist and director of Ohel Children and Family Services in Brooklyn, New York. His topic will be: The definition of mental-emotional health; understanding what it means; when to seek professional assistance; and how therapy helps. The program will be moderated by Rabbi Yisrael Slansky, Director of RELIEF Resources Services of Baltimore. Rabbi Slansky will provide detailed information as to how one can go about seeking help and a detailed explanation as to how RELIEF helps individuals and families seek professional help.
This event is graciously sponsored by: Levindale Hospital, Sinai Hospital, Bikur Cholim, RELIEF Resources, Ohel New York, Ahavas Yisrael, Hatzalah, CBMI/Lev Shlomo, Jewish Caring Network and Jewish Community Services. Sign language will be made available for the deaf and hard of hearing through JADE, (Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education) by its director, Yael Zelinger. Live-Streaming will be made possible via Yosef Davis, Moshe Sofer and Meir Sommers of TorahAnytime.com with the technical assistance of Avrohom Klugman in Baltimore, Maryland.
Below is an article by Mrs. Suzann Lasson MOTR/L, the primary force behind this event, presenting the background and purpose of this program.
The Key to Unlocking Closed Doors
I have wanted to put together an event to raise mental health awareness in the Orthodox Jewish community for years, ever since I started working on an acute psychiatric unit fifteen years ago as an occupational therapist. For some background, occupational therapy had its origin in psychiatric hospitals in the 1950s, when soldiers returning from war with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were provided purposeful and meaningful activity via crafts and manual tasks. Occupational therapy then expanded to include psycho-social group therapy. As most occupational therapists have moved away from its origin and toward more physical disabilities, a small population of OTs still work in psychiatric settings.
During the five years I worked on an acute psychiatric unit, I saw just a few religious Jews. The exact number is three. And I still think about them.
I evaluated a 20-year-old Orthodox Jewish male for occupational therapy. He was diagnosed with major depression. When I asked him, “Who is your support system?”, he answered, “No one.” When I inquired further about his family or friends, he answered in the negative. Then I asked him if he could speak with his Rav, as many Rabbanim are trained in psychology. He said, “I can’t speak to anyone because if I do I will never get a shidduch.”
The second encounter I had on the acute psychiatric unit was also a young male in his 20s from the Orthodox Jewish community. At that time, the estimated length of stay on an acute psychiatric unit was 1-3 days. This male was admitted sometime over the weekend. I never treated him. However, when I walked on the unit on Monday, and he recognized me as an Orthodox Jew, he came over to me and said, “If you ever see me in the community, pretend you never saw me.”
The last religious Jewish patient I treated on the psychiatric unit was a young mother with many children, including a baby. She was diagnosed with postpartum depression, which consisted of symptoms such as extreme melancholy, anhedonia (loss of pleasure in once-enjoyable activities) and feelings of guilt over not being able to care for her children.
You may be wondering: does depression effect one ethnic group more than another? The answer is no. Depression, as well as any mental illness, can affect anyone of any race, culture, ethnicity and age.
I have moved on to working in geriatric psychiatry at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, for the last 10 years. Levindale’s specialty hospital is composed of four units of 20 beds each on the behavioral health units. Occupational therapists evaluate patients in the following main performance areas: ADL (activities of daily living, include self-care and functional transfers), cognition, upper-extremity strength and range of motion, and psycho-social factors, which include stress, coping skills, frustration tolerance, assertiveness and impulse control. Both short-and long-term goals are documented in order to address problem areas such as depression, anxiety, and dementia. Occupational therapists run daily group therapy to include such topics as anxiety and depression management, coping skills, assertiveness, anger management, how to speak about mental illness, and positive thinking specifically geared toward older adults, age 55 and older. I have a rolling cart filled with alphabetical folders containing various group topics. Occupational therapists also facilitate life-skills groups, including fall prevention, body mechanics, safety skills training, and exercise as a coping skill. At Levindale, I can recall treating a few religious Jewish men, but not one religious woman comes to mind.
There is another factor in my determination of pursuing a mental health event for the religious community. Each year, there have been 1-3 young Jewish men who have ended their lives through suicide. Some have left messages on their Facebook pages, including cries for help and near-misses. Some of their deaths have been associated with addiction. And some are due to under-treated mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder or even anxiety (thoughts of death and suicide are also common symptoms of anxiety). After suicide, there has been no public word about mental illness. And the crisis continues.
There have been speakers who have addressed grief and loss, even addiction. But this is a Band-Aid, a temporary fix or comfort. The real issues of “why” are not talked about; triggers are not addressed; the underlying mental illness is not addressed. And history repeats itself.
To me, this is unsatisfactory. Change can only come once we recognize and speak openly about mental health issues, support one another, and encourage others to seek help. Once mental illness is managed, people can live productive lives in their life roles. When mental illness is not treated or when people — especially young people — are stigmatized and made to feel shame, their lives become bleak and unstable.
For someone who has never suffered from a mental illness, it is hard to relate to someone who has. One may even fear it is contagious or believe that all people with mental illness are violent or, at the very least, unstable.
According to NAMI, the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill, one in every four people will experience mental illness at some time in their lives, whether mild to severe. With proper treatment and medication, mental illness can be manageable. Just like a physical illness, such as diabetes or high cholesterol, mental illness is treatable, by having regular visits to a psychiatrist of psychiatric nurse practitioner, being prescribed medications, having routine individual and/or group therapy with a therapist or psychologist, and through implementation of coping skills such as exercise, prayer, having a support system, and keeping occupied via meaningful activity. People with mental illness can live productive lives as much as people without mental illness live their lives. And, if a relapse occurs, it is okay to seek help.
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