By MICHAEL C. DUKE | JHV
Thu, May 25, 2017
At this time last year, Greater Houston’s Jewish community was beginning to come to terms with the fact that its young adult population was suffering from a “suicide epidemic.”
As many as nine Jewish Houstonians, all under the age of 36, had died by suicide over the course of a year-and-a-half.
At the end of August 2016, a Community Coalition was formed with the specific goal to stem the tide of suicide, as well as offer support to those who lost a loved one to a suicide death.
Some eight months later, the optics have improved. Members of the coalition have logged more than 600 hours of mental health training. Meanwhile, Houston’s Community Coalition has become a model for the rest of the country and has broadened its scope to a wider mental health services strategy that now includes a parallel focus on substance abuse within the community.
“We began as the Community Coalition for Suicide Prevention and Support, and we realized in all of our learnings, especially with help from Mental Health America, that there are so many things that lead up to that moment of high risk of suicide, and hopefully intervention, that we need to broaden our focus, which is why we created a Mental Health Programs area to be able to encompass all those things,” said Linda Burger, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Houston, whose agency has taken the lead on guiding the coalition.
Burger convened a meeting with coalition leaders on May 17 to discuss the initiative’s progress.
Over the past year, JFS has worked closely with Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Mental Health America of Greater Houston and a wide variety of community partners, including synagogues, schools, youth groups and young adult organizations, to introduce new mental health programs and services, as well as improve support systems for crisis intervention.
Earlier this month, JFS launched a new website – MentalHealthLetsTalk.org – designed as a resource for those suffering from mental illness and for those who lend support.
“We wanted to create something that people could really use and utilize, instead of just being a landing page,” said Elyssa Gottheim, a licensed clinical social worker, who joined JFS in January to broaden the agency’s mental health programs initiative.
“It was also important to build a site that could evolve over time,” Gottheim said.
Under the site’s Mental Health Issues tab, there are resources for suicide prevention, substance abuse and student/educator support. The site hosts an events calendar, recommended readings and a contact page. Emergency numbers for crisis intervention are provided, as well.
“There’s also a ‘Community Member Login’ feature at the top of the page,” Gottheim said. “This is a password-protected portal for those in other communities to see what we’ve done, what’s been successful, what hasn’t been, and to learn from what we’ve learned, based on our experience.”
JFS leaders said they’ve received communications from all over the country, requesting advice on how to respond to mental health-related crises.
“We seem to be a step ahead of what other communities have done,” Burger said. “Another community may have done a Mental Health First Aid training and that’s it, or another program and that’s their answer, whereas we’re continuing to strive to find what are the multitude of answers to work on this challenge.”
Besides the new website, JFS has developed an ad campaign, branded T-shirts and has provided materials and support for mental health programs.
To date, the coalition has hosted three training sessions for Mental Health First Aid – two for adults and one for youth – involving 75 participants. The coalition is halfway to its goal of training 30 youth professionals in Mental Health First Aid, a program championed by Mental Health America.
Education for youth and youth professionals has been a key focus of the initiative’s Youth Coalition, led by Lisa Klein, managing director of the Federation’s Jewish Education department.
By raising awareness among Jewish teens in high school and middle school, the coalition believes that future suicides and suicide attempts can be prevented.
Klein said the Youth Coalition has learned valuable lessons from its failures over the past year.
Students at Kehillah High volunteered to serve as a focus group for a mental health awareness and suicide-prevention program that the coalition was considering for Houston’s congregational schools, day schools and youth groups. Though the program has been used successfully in public schools, and received positive feedback from local Jewish educators, its format failed to resonate with Kehillah High’s focus group.
“We did a test case and it was a supreme failure,” said Klein. “Which was a good thing, because that failure helped us realize that it wasn’t a good tool to use with our kids.”
Based on feedback from the focus group, the Youth Coalition worked with Mental Health America of Greater Houston and JFS to develop a new program. This second attempt was well-received by a group of students at Congregation Emanu El’s Helfman Religious School and since has been offered, successfully, in other community settings.
“After the disaster at Kehillah High, we reformulated and went back to the drawing board and we developed a suicide-prevention training module for adolescents that’s very much like the Youth Mental Health First Aid program, which is highly interactive,” said Mental Health America’s Janet Pozmantier.
Meanwhile, the Youth Coalition continues to seek out new programs, leaders noted. Earlier this month, a group of Jewish education professionals participated in a webinar for a program called “Sources of Strength.”
“We were really impressed with this program,” Klein said. “It doesn’t emphasize the negative things that are going on in a person’s life. Rather, it looks at how we can build from a source of strength and from the resources we have around us.
“It’s very peer-driven and based on a social-networking concept,” she added, “We think this might be a program well-suited to do community-wide, where each school and organization will be able to have its own piece to develop.”
Klein said the Youth Coalition’s goal is to rollout such a program as early as fall 2017. The coalition also is working to secure funding to introduce additional teen-wellness programming opportunities.
Young adult programming
On the adult side, the coalition also has learned from failures over the past year.
Leaders tried to organize a support group for young adults who lost a loved one to suicide. However, nobody signed up.
“What we learned from that experiment was that this was not the correct modality for reaching out to young adults,” Gottheim said. “This led us to consider other ways to engage.”
With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, the coalition launched a new monthly program for young adults. Rather than a specific focus on suicide, the events will address a variety of topics.
Partnering with the Federation’s Jerome Robinson Family Young Adult Division, the program’s inaugural event braided together the topics of challah making and coping skills. The next event, scheduled for June 8, is titled “Self-Care, Mindfulness & Meditation.” On July 18, the program will focus on high-risk behavior and drug overdose.
During the Community Coalition’s launch program last September, Burger noted that parents contacted JFS about a substance abuse problem in the community, but those concerns fell mostly on deaf ears. Burger made a pledge to “not continue down that path.”
JFS leaders since have met with parents, young adults and teens who’ve been in recovery, in order to develop a parallel track, focused on substance abuse. JFS and the coalition recently received funding to introduce programming along this line.
The first such program will take place Aug. 22, when local rabbis and cantors from synagogues across Greater Houston will participate in a half-day seminar.
“As a personal goal for the program, I want there to be at least one sermon for the High Holy Days that hasn’t been written yet,” Burger said. “I want that [spiritual leader] to leave the workshop thinking about a message they could give to the Jewish community, recognizing that we do have a problem with substance abuse – and it’s serious.”
Burger noted that the coalition is partnering with the Council on Recovery for its substance-abuse focus. The Council has been involved with organizing a 12-step program group that holds weekly meetings at Brith Shalom synagogue.
The coalition plans to go more public with substance abuse and recovery programs over the coming year, Burger noted. Simultaneously, the coalition wants to see every synagogue in town offering Mental Health First Aid courses, to the point that one or two courses will be offered at a community institution every month.
“A lot has been accomplished over the past year,” Burger said. “I’m OK celebrating the failures, because if there were a cookie-cutter approach to this challenge, we wouldn’t have to be doing this.”
She added, “It’s a community effort, raising the awareness. … We’ve gotten stronger on the commitment to eliminate suicide.”