When I first heard about Chazkeinu, I was enthusiastic but concerned.
While the idea of a peer-led phone support network for females with mental illness or who have a loved one with mental illness is a fantastic idea, I know firsthand how difficult it is to get a mental health initiative off the ground. After all, the seeds for Refa’enu, the nonprofit organization that I founded, which focuses on mood disorder support and awareness in the Jewish community, were planted 10 years before it was started officially, and the initial Refa’enu online support forum that preceded the formation of the formal organization didn’t gain the momentum I had envisioned. It’s been a lot of work to set up and maintain the twice-monthly support groups that we run in Paramus for people with mood disorders and their loved ones, and still more effort goes into ideas and projects in the pipeline. So while I loved the Chazkeinu initiative, hoping for its success, I couldn’t help but be a little worried on behalf of the team behind it.
But that’s the thing — the very nature of Chazkeinu is its team-like environment. Founded by five women living in different places, the idea behind Chazkeinu is to find support through connections with others. Or, in reference to the root word, “chazak,” which means “strength,” Chazkeinu aims to “strengthen ourselves through strengthening each other.” Clearly, this is something I deem important in the work I’ve done as well. It is stated best on Chazkeinu’s website, chazkeinu.org:
“Chazkeinu promotes empathetic support and positive connections amongst those coping with their own mental illness, or that of a loved one, to help each other feel safe, understood and uplifted amidst their struggles.”
The phone group “meets” twice a week, on Mondays at 9 p.m. and — catering to international callers — on Wednesdays at 1 p.m., both Eastern Standard Time. Someone speaks for about 20 minutes, followed by an open, moderated forum where dialed-in participants can reflect on what the speaker has shared and how it resonates with their own experiences, either by speaking briefly themselves or by sending in a message to be read by the moderators.
The guest speaker is either a woman sharing her personal story, or a mental health professional or rabbi who takes on more of an educational and informational role. Guest speakers are recorded for later listening by those who cannot be on the call during its set time, but comments by participants following the guest speaker are not recorded.
Chazkeinu started with 15 participants on the first call and has reached more than 50 participants on some calls. The calls are designed to protect individual anonymity to whatever degree a person is comfortable with, providing options like muting participants who are not speaking, allowing for questions to the guest speaker to be emailed in, and not requiring that listeners give their real names or even speak at all.
I had the opportunity to be a guest speaker on last Monday night’s call. I talked about my own struggle with bipolar disorder as well as the creation of Refa’enu. It became clear to me how empowering it is to be on a Chazkeinu call, for participants as well as for the guest speaker.
I find that the objective behind Refa’enu’s in-person support groups and Chazkeinu’s phone support groups are one and the same. That is, as one of Chazkeinu’s founders told me before the call, to combat stigma by being open and honest, and to connect with others who understand the particular struggle of living with mental illness. It is this sense of understanding, which results from connecting with others in the same boat, as I like to say, that helps people break free from isolation and the feeling of “otherness.”
A project of Shabbat.com, Chazkeinu has received assistance with funding, hosting and creation of its website, general PR, and networking. Chazkeinu’s main resource for women faced with mental illness is the semi-weekly phone call, but it does offer a few other services as well. A Partner Program matches up two women in similar situations, who then can communicate outside of the group calls and give individual encouragement. There’s also a new Davening Group, where participants can add their own names, or those of loved ones faced with mental illness, to a list, and receive a list of others for whom to pray in whatever mode of prayer works best for the person, whether that be in a formal synagogue setting or in private.
Future plans may include a website blog, forums, and newsletters.
The founders also hope to organize Shabbatons and retreats to give participants the opportunity to meet face to face and hear speakers in person. Phone meeting sponsorship and fundraising events also are on their wish list.
The bottom line in terms of hopes for the future is to spread awareness and empower those who are suffering.
“No one deserves to suffer in silence,” one of Chazkeinu’s founders told me. “We want people to look at mental illness as they do a physical illness, with acceptance, desire to help, and without judgment.”
I couldn’t agree more. I know we’re going to get there, but I also know it’s going to take time, work, and dedication.
And yes, I do understand people’s concern for privacy and confidentiality. It comes up often when people initially consider attending Refa’enu support groups, and the worry about it is probably the biggest holdup in terms of initial attendance. But how great will it be when we get to a point as a society where not only can those affected by mental illness talk about it among themselves, but with the general community as well? I look ahead to a time when the stigma will have subsided, to the extent that people and their loved ones will feel comfortable being public about their struggles and triumphs without the worry of being shamed or labeled.
As Refa’enu continues with its support groups and plans for future projects related to mental health awareness and education, I get excited with each new mental health initiative in the Jewish community. Every grassroots organization like Chazkeinu, Refa’enu, or Elijah’s Journey (another important organization that focuses on suicide awareness and prevention) is a step forward in lifting the veil that has overshadowed mental illness for way too long.
I encourage others to participate in the movement — because at this point it is becoming a movement — whether by seeking support for themselves or a loved one, or through hands-on involvement in these organizations.
Above all, let’s keep the doors of communication open. It’s important to keep the conversation going.