This weekend synagogues of all denominations across the country will mark Mental Health Awareness Shabbat.
Backed by Jami, the Jewish Association for Mental Illness, the annual initiative is a clear sign of how mental health issues are now more freely discussed both within the Jewish community, and throughout wider society.
Luciana Berger, the Labour MP and long-time campaigner on mental health issues, welcomed the Shabbat initiative.
“This event is indicative of the progress we are making on the journey to rid our society and community of the stigma of mental health,” she said.
“We still have some progress to make, especially to ensure that all of us can access mental health services when we need to, in the same way we expect from our physical health services.”
In her role as President of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health, Ms Berger has been campaigning to secure ring-fencing for mental health budgets, claiming funding promises made nationally are not reaching frontline services.
“In my own area we have seen a cut of £757,000 or 43 per cent to our key mental health service for young people,” the Liverpool Wavertree MP said.
“ When people seek help, we must ensure that it is available.
“We will soon see legislation laid in Parliament following the government’s recently announced green paper on young people’s mental health.”
Like her predecessor David Cameron, Prime Minister Theresa May has regularly pledged to make mental health service spending a priority.
The Department of Health says that since 2010 spending on mental health has risen to a record £11.6bn, with a further investment of £1bn every year up until 2021. But Jewish professionals working within the mental health care sector have expressed concern over funding.
Scott Weich, professor of mental health at the University of Sheffield and an expert in psychiatry with a 30-year career working within the NHS, said: “The truth is we really know how to deliver effective mental health care — but it’s not cheap.
“There’s no magic way to do it. It takes time, money and dedicated professionals.”
Prof Weich claimed there had “a real term net deduction in investment in mental health” in recent years, adding that “disinvestment has made it harder for people to get the help they need”.
But he urged those seeking mental health care not to be put off finding help despite reports of lengthy waiting times and overworked staff.
“The one thing that we do have is a cadre of brilliant professionals out there,” he says. “I work with them every day.
“We are still one of the very best countries in the world for mental health care.”
Ravi Walters works as the family support and social work manager for Jewish welfare charity Norwood.
Managing teams in Redbridge and Hackney, she has witnessed first-hand the rise in so-called “priority” cases of teenagers and young adults who are referred to the charity for urgent help.
“We are seeing children, sometimes who are very young, with high-levels of distress,” she said. “One issue that is impacting, especially amongst the older teenage end, is definitely from the digital world.
“I think the pressures of things like social media are causing huge anxiety among young people. How many likes they are getting on Snapchat or Instagram really matters to them.”
Ms Walters would like to see more preventative approaches being taken, particularly within schools.
Ms Walters praised JFS, the Jewish secondary school in North-West London, for deploying teams of therapists, counsellors and Norwood social workers to provide support for children and the families.
She also spoke enthusiastically about a Year 11 project at JcoSS school, also in North-West London, helping students taking GCSEs to cope with stress issues around examinations.
She added: “We don’t have the resources to do as much one-to-one work as we would like. We need to get schools to implement strategies to reduce some of this distress among our children.”
The need for better education on mental health issues for children and teenagers was also highlighted by psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel.
Author of It’s Not Always Depression, a new book on the subject, Ms Jacobs Hendel said schools should teach the science of emotions in the same way they teach about the human body in biology.
She said: “When we are young we learn about the function of the heart is to pump blood around the body. We need similar education to understand the function of our emotions, to prevent the development of issues like depression and anxiety.
“Take self-harm — children often self-charm because they feel overwhelmed with emotion. They have no tools for coping with what they feel and the self-harm becomes a release.”
Bernie Garner has worked for the past three years as director of community services at The Fed, the social care charity for the Jewish community in Manchester, and has a background in social work public service as a local authority commissioner.
She warned that people suffering mental health problems were at risk of being isolated in society, which in turn made their condition worse.
She said: “While the local authority will close a particular person’s case after a certain length of time, what The Fed does is step in and continue to support a person.
“It’s all about maintaining a person’s well-being. Loneliness and isolation are a huge problem out there.
“If you have a significant mental health issue it can be very isolating, no matter what age you are.”
Ms Garner hailed the Jewish community as “unique in the way we support each other”. It allows the Fed to deliver 40, 000 hours of support from Jewish volunteers each year. “I’ve worked in statutory services, public services, and I’ve never come across that level of volunteering,” Ms Garner said.
“Giving back to the community is something that is intrinsic within the Jewish community.”
Additional reporting by Rosa Doherty
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