Mental illness has never been an easy topic.
Although many people suffer from mental illness, the stigma attached to it prevents people from discussing it with others. As a result, not only is mental illness devastating, it can be isolating to both patients and their families.
Rabbi Ari Zahtz, the assistant rabbi at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, is trying to change that.
Together with other members of the community and guided by mental health professionals, Rabbi Zahtz has started Project Ometz, with the goal of changing the way our community views mental illness. (The Hebrew word ometz translates to courage, in acknowledgment of the tremendous courage it takes to come forward to ask for help.) The goal of Project Ometz is to pair parents who have been successful in navigating the process of getting their children help with their mental illness with parents who are starting that painful process.
After speaking to many local day school principles and mental health professionals, and learning that many children are affected, Rabbi Zahtz recognized that something had to be done. “The bigger picture is opening the conversation and addressing the stigma,” he said. “One day, we are hoping it won’t be so hard to be open.” Though he knows that Project Ometz isn’t the only solution, he is hoping it will be “a positive step forward.”
Project Ometz will provide a nonjudgmental ear; parents will know that someone will listen to them and help them devise strategies to cope with everyday living. Parents who have and continue to live with a child with mental illness will be able to discuss what has worked for them. Rabbi Zahtz also was very clear in saying, “We will only match up people whose children already are under the care of a mental health professional.” The parents seeking support — whose children do not have to be getting counseling, although one hope is that they will consider the benefits of such professional help eventually — will go to the website and detail their situation. They then will be paired with parents who are under the care of a mental health professional but want to lend support. And in the process, it will give them courage to find the strength needed to support, help, and heal their child.
Rabbi Zahtz thinks that support from other parents is a good first step in helping these families. As the patients, children are supported by their mental health professionals, but parents often do not have anyone to support them. Parents are reluctant to discuss their own struggles, often focusing only on the needs of their child. “As a community, if we don’t know what is going on with the family, we can’t help them,” Rabbi Zahtz said. But the fact that “Parents are slow and hesitant to come forward, really illustrates the need for a program such as this one.”
On Monday, February 27, Dr. David Pelcovitz, a well-known child psychologist, will speak at a teleconference, open to the public, sponsored by Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, called “You Are Not Alone — Parenting a Child With Mental Health Challenges.” Dr. Pelcovitz is an instructor in pastoral counseling at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and the director of psychology at North Shore Hospital–NYU School of Medicine. He has worked with Jewish communities in the United States, Europe, and Israel on a wide range of issues that face children and adolescents.
According to the flier advertising Project Ometz and the teleconference, “For too long, the stigma of mental health has prevented families from reaching out for help. Our goal is to break down that barrier.”
The call begins at 8:15 pm and the number is (641) 552-9173. The access code is 636984. Everyone online can submit questions during the presentation by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Everyone will remain anonymous, so there is confidentiality in asking questions.
The teleconference will introduce Project Ometz as a “community initiative to help families raising children with mental health challenges and discuss important related issues.” It is open to the entire Jewish community.
Project Ometz will join Refa’enu, another local organization that exercises a different model of help. Refa’enu helps individuals and families suffering with mood disorders and other related issues through support groups both for people living with those disorders and for their relatives and friends. Both of these organizations are starting with baby steps — but both are working hard to eradicate the stigma.