SIMON JOHNSON

Why we can’t ignore mental health issues

FOR this first column of 2019, I want to look ahead eight days to January 12, which is Mental Health Awareness Shabbat — promoted by our member organisation, JAMI.

It has the working title of Head On and, as in previous years, it will hope to make congregants in the hundreds of shuls which are participating more aware of issues of mental well-being.

It seems that 2018 was dominated by stories about antisemitism in politics. Certainly, that was the major theme of my columns in 2018.

But while all those issues were being dealt with, the overall work of the JLC continued — perhaps without any similar fanfare.

The subject of mental well-being, especially among young people, has been a major thread of the JLC’s work with our members in 2018. We have tried to make this a priority for our work.

Adolescence and the early years of adulthood are a time of life when many changes occur, for example changing schools, leaving home and starting university or a new job. For many, these are exciting times. They can also be times of stress and apprehension.

The expanding use of online technologies, while undoubtedly bringing many benefits, can also bring additional pressures, as connectivity to virtual networks at any time of the day and night grows. Half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, but most cases go undetected and untreated.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death of those aged 15 to 29. Fortunately, there is a growing recognition of the importance of helping young people build mental resilience.

Evidence is growing that promoting and protecting adolescent health brings benefits not just to adolescents’ health, both in the short and the long-term, but also to economies and society.

Prevention begins with being aware of understanding the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness.

It is this belief in well-being, resilience and prevention which has lain behind much of the work that we and our members have focused on through the year.

In the summer, JAMI and the Jewish community’s youth network Reshet promoted a “Well-being for Youth” pack.

Its aim was to help madrichim create a warm and inclusive environment that promotes well-being. It is a very useful resource and just part of what the community organisations are trying to do in focusing on well-being.

Working in collaboration with its members, the JLC has launched a three-year pilot to address well-being of young people in schools.

There are five schools initially in the pilot — three secondary schools in London and two primary schools, of which one is Broughton Jewish Cassel Fox Primary in Salford.

We have put well-being practitioners into these five schools and the aim will be for them to work with guidance to produce a comprehensive and holistic pilot programme to tackle the mental well-being of young people.

They will work with an evidence-based package of support and recommendations and everything that we do will be externally evaluated and monitored.

Psychiatrists working on our advisory group have described this as the most exciting project in this field for years.

We believe — and it is backed up — that this is the right thing to do at the right time. Communities need to collaborate so that young people learn to be more psychologically resilient and psychologically well.

The aim is to allow young people to learn resilience and to be psychologically fit. The well-being practitioners are not counsellors or psychiatrists. This programme is about mental health, rather than mental illness.

Indeed, it is that emphasis on mental health which is the focus of the JAMI Mental Health Awareness Shabbat next week.

It is important that with all the uncertainty which surrounded our community in 2018, we continue, as communal leaders, to address the long-standing issues which impact us.

As I have said many times in this column, this community is going nowhere. The talk about leaving the country has risked providing a distraction from the strategic work which is so essential to our long-term future.

At the JLC, we have not had the luxury of being distracted. Even while we have been leading the fight along with our communal partners against antisemitism, we have had to keep our eye on addressing the community’s long-term needs.

Mental health has been one such issue. Although there is a Mental Health Shabbat every year, the difference in 2019 is that it comes after a year of close and co-operative collaboration between those communal organisations which play a role in addressing mental health for young people.

The JLC’s Mental Health Task Force brought together the chairmen and chief executive officers of JAMI, Norwood, Camp Simcha, the Partnership for Jewish Schools, Reshet and Maccabi GB, each of which have played a role in tackling mental health for young people.

Only an umbrella organisation such as the JLC can bring organisations together and facilitate the type of collaborative planning that enables the community to address its most pressing issues.

The outcome of this collaborative planning has been the pilot programme in five schools.

We have been able to bring in new funding to support the three- year programme. At the end of the pilot, we aim to have a clearer idea of how best the community could play a role in caring for the mental well-being of our young people.

So, as it comes to Mental Health Shabbat, it is an opportunity to reflect on how the whole community has come together to address this issue and together find solutions for the long-term benefit of the community.

That is what our communal organisations should rightly do.

Let us hope that 2019 provides a year of peace and quiet, which allows us to finally address some of our most pressing challenges.

In that way, our community will go from strength to strength and the UK will remain a great place in which to live a vibrant Jewish life.


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