On the wall of Head Room, the Jami café in Golders Green, there used to be a sign which read: “Labels are for jars, not for people”.
Although the sign was taken down for the refurbishment and expansion of the café a year ago, the charity’s CEO still very much stands by its message.
Laurie Rackind, who will be stepping down at the end of the month after 18 years of heading up the Jewish mental health charity, told the JC: “It’s really important that we don’t label people. While for some people, naming something can help put into context their challenge, for a lot of people, a label isn’t helpful since it dictates what recovery should look like. Also, when it comes to employment, employers can have preconceived ideas.”
Another reason for avoiding labels at Jami is because no two people will experience a mental illness in the same way. “Someone might come to Jami who, due to OCD, can’t leave the house because of their anxiety, whereas someone else might feel compelled to check the front door is locked three times, but it doesn’t impact their life beyond that.”
"We all have strengths and weaknesses. At Jami, we focus on someone’s challenges, rather than a diagnosis of OCD, psychosis or depression, for example.”
That we are now able to sit in a café in Golders Green run by a mental health charity, talking about mental health — very openly, rather than in hushed tones — is credit to Rackind’s vision.
“The idea of the café was to provide fewer services in an institutional setting, and more from high street spaces. It’s a way of taking away the stigma from mental illness by having an inclusive setting, open to everyone.”
Sessions which used to take place in a day centre, including group sessions and one-to-one appointments, are now often held in the café instead. “Someone could be eating their shakshuka, and they wouldn’t know that a session was taking place at the next table. What we do here is ground-breaking.” He hopes that in the future, Jami will open something similar in Mill Hill.
While social media — and innovations such as Head Room — have gone some way towards normalising conversations around mental health, Rackind says that the stigma is still “a big issue in the Jewish community and worse than in the wider community”.
The key, he says, is education. “Forty years ago, people talked about ‘the C-word’ due to fear, but now people are more educated and talk about different types of cancer. Yet, people still lump all mental illness together.”
This weekend is the annual Jami Shabbat, for which the charity has created a toolkit to inspire rabbinical sermons and to encourage people to open the conversation on mental health around the dinner table.
It will be Rackind’s last Jami Shabbat in his post. Looking back on his time as CEO, he says that one of his biggest achievements was the introduction of peer support workers, where a client is paired with a trained professional who shares the same mental health challenge. “If I am someone who hears voices, and I come into Jami and get support from someone else who hears voices but knows how to manage that situation, that is really powerful.”
Peer support is offered not only to people with mental health challenges but to their families too. Jami currently supports around 400 families.
Having joined the charity with a background in engineering rather than mental health and seen it grow from a team of four to a staff of 100, Rackind must surely have a plan for a new career challenge. He says not, but what he does know is that “my next role will also have to have a purpose”.
As for his continuing relationship with Jami, which recently moved under the umbrella of Jewish Care, “I’m going to be that annoying parent who keeps cheering from the side-lines”.
The Jami Shabbat is on January 19 – 20, with events also planned for January 21. To get involved, go to: jamiuk.org