Jami's modern approach to mental health

Jessica Elgot reports on how the London charity is helping to set clients on the road to recovery

By Jessica Elgot, July 8, 2010
James Cohen and Sophia Levi are grateful for the advice and support they receive from Jami

James Cohen and Sophia Levi are grateful for the advice and support they receive from Jami

Laurie Rackind's caseload as chief executive of the Jewish Association for the Mentally Ill would decrease dramatically "if the community treated everyone with a mental health issue like anyone else.

"Part of why we exist is because that ain't happening," he said, reporting a client list exceeding 250 with problems including, anorexia, OCD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

And although Jami's work eases the burden on an overstretched NHS, only £45,000 of its £600,000 budget comes from statutory sources. It relies on almost 100 volunteers to support the professional team.

Jami aims to help service users lead independent lives on the road to a full recovery. An element of tough love is involved - "not feeding them chicken soup and wrapping them in a blanket," as Mr Rackind puts it. Flirting forums and befriending schemes are among diverse activities and there is also educational work with employers and accommodation assistance through a benevolent landlords' scheme.

Combating ignorance was paramount. "More than 80 per cent of people can make full recovery, but only through early intervention," he pointed out. "The problem in the Jewish community, as with a lot of minorities, is that people are often judged by their success and achievement."

Jami's mental health leader Tanya Harris highlights meaningful employment as pivotal to independent living and mental wellbeing. "It's the first thing people ask you - what do you do?" However, Jami service users have experienced problems in the job market.

"I do feel that people look at you oddly," said Zach, 29. "If I need to take a day off, they think I am lazy, or pulling a sickie."

Mr Rackind added that "if someone has a broken leg or pneumonia, the employer will welcome them back". If they took time off for a mental health issue, the situation was often different. "But if you can work with that person and their employer at the start, then sometimes they won't need help ever again."

With finding a home, "we rent from landlords and the service users rent from us but it's not supported accommodation. We hope they will move into their own flat at some point.

"There are special things we can do to help them, like let them sign short agreements."

Having a home is a means to improve social life and volunteers act as befrienders to kick-start the process. "Befrienders don't meet them at the Jami day centre," Mr Rackind explained. "They go out and do ordinary stuff that any young person would do."

Noah, 27, has benefited from the befriending scheme after suffering "three pretty severe breakdowns, one of which ended my marriage. I did nothing. I slept all day, and to be honest, I didn't mind.

"But then Jami found me. They put me in touch with a befriender and we get together once a week and go for coffee. That has been so helpful, just someone to be myself with. I hope I'm going to make a full recovery."

Samuel, 36, recalled that "after a bad head injury, I lost all my soft skills, my ability to relate to anyone. I can read a book fine but I find it so hard in social situations. My befriender is my first real friend in years."

The charity also, for example, shows clients how to create profiles on JDate.

Mr Rackind believes many in the community would be unaware that "most people we help are only in their twenties. What a waste it would have been if we hadn't found them. I'd love to see some of these guys in their thirties when the past is the past.

"And it is a realistic expectation because of the way we work now. It might not have been five years ago."

‘Being Diagnosed as bipolar was a breakthrough'

James Cohen, 26, Gants Hill
“I had a very happy childhood, very normal. I was popular and sociable until the last years of high school. I was about 16 when I started to suffer from mild depression — sleeping a lot, low energy, low motivation. My mum says she can see the signs of a bigger problem, looking back.

When I was 18, I decided to take a year out in Israel. When I was there I became very, very religious. I was a practising Chasid, which you could never tell now. I was 20, and still in Israel, when I had a total mental breakdown.

I was terrified at the thought of therapy and medication. All I could think of was men in white coats, shrinks coming to take me away. I tried lots of things to get away from that, including going to a yeshivah in New York. I went to rehab, twice to The Priory and once to a clinic in South Africa.

I became homeless for a while, and everyone thought I was a drug addict. I attempted suicide more than once, although they were really cries for help.

When I was diagnosed as bipolar, it was a real breakthrough. I’m so grateful for it. I can be on the right medication and it’s really helped my family to understand it too.

I have had to totally dissociate myself from religion. It is a trigger which makes me ill again. But now, working with Jami, I am involved in a drama group and putting on a show. I’ve been volunteering and I’m on minimal medication and in therapy that’s tailored to my diagnosis.

I lost a lot of friends who didn’t understand my illness. Facebook is really helpful but also quite strange. I saw that one of my old mates is getting married and going on a stag do to Barcelona. I would love to be there so much, going out drinking and clubbing and being one of the boys.

But I’m happy for them and they have inspired me. I think that if they can do it, I can do it. I saw on Facebook that some of my friends had been on a trip to South Africa with Aish. And that inspired me to go and do the same thing.

I’m also so grateful for the safety net of benefits here in the UK. They have really helped me. I can’t make aliyah, even though I would like to, because I can’t get the same support in Israel.”

‘The lows can last for months’

Sophia Levi, 27, Hendon

“I have several diagnoses but one is bipolar disorder. When I’m high, I feel on top of the world, like I can do anything. But the lows can last for months.

I went to Leeds University, studying politics, but I went through some quite bad episodes while I was there, so I probably didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have done. I am so lucky to have a really supportive and close network of friends, who have always been there for me.

Sometimes it is difficult, because they want to go out to bars and clubs. I have done that, but I do find it overwhelming. I’d prefer just to go for a coffee. But they understand that. Of course, I have lost a few friends along the way, but they weren’t real friends.

I came into contact with Jami about two years ago, just after I left hospital. Now I’ve got my own house. The people here are amazing. It’s an incomparable, lifesaver place.”

Last updated: 12:15pm, July 8 2010