Community-wide efforts support mental health

The total raised at last year’s Mindstrong in support of psychiatric services is unveiled at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.

Congregations across the denominational spectrum are joining together for the Montreal Jewish Community Mental Health Awareness Shabbat on May 10 and 11, which organizers hope will become an annual event.

“We have reached a wide and varied group of shuls to participate and hope this will be the first step in destigmatizing mental health issues in the Jewish community,” said Rachel Goodman Aspler, the co-chair of the initiative with Yair Meyers.

Goodman Aspler, a practising clinical psychologist, said that despite positive changes in society’s attitude toward mental illnesses and disorders, shame still surrounds the issue in the Jewish community.

She is concerned that the stigma is preventing many people from getting help.

Both co-chairs are members of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem (TBDJ), which has taken the lead in identifying mental well-being as a communal matter.

Eighteen synagogues are listed as partners of the Mental Health Shabbat, including Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Shaare Zion Congregation, four Chabad centres and Congrégation Sépharade Or Hahayim.

They have each undertaken to dedicate that Shabbat to mental health. They will do this by bringing in speakers, addressing the issue in sermons or sending email messages to congregants.

The Shabbat coincides with Mental Health Week, which is being promoted by the Canadian Mental Health Association.


TBDJ is presenting a pre-Shabbat symposium that’s open to the public on May 9 at 8 p.m., featuring David Pelcovitz, an American psychologist and mental health advocate with 35 years experience in clinical practice and research. He is currently the Straus chair in psychology and Jewish education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.

Sponsored with Agence Ometz and AMI-Quebec, the symposium will also include a panel discussion featuring Barbara Victor, the chief clinical officer at Ometz, Sylvia Itzhayek, a family caregiver associated with AMI-Quebec, and Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron.

The following day, Pelcovitz will speak to students from the Jewish high schools, in association with the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre. Goodman Aspler said teens are exhibiting a high degree of anxiety these days, which needs to be addressed.

He will stay on as scholar-in-residence at TBDJ for the entire Shabbat.

“I work a lot with members of the Jewish community,” said Goodman Aspler, “and there is still enormous stigma associated with mental illness, unfortunately, despite the fact that it is very common.…

“The Jewish community has changed to a degree, but it is nowhere near where it should be. It’s not a Jewish concept that you have to be OK all of the time.”

There are resources within the community, but people are not always aware of them, added Goodman Aspler.

Also taking place next month is the fifth annual Mindstrong, a fundraiser for the psychiatric services at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH), with an emphasis on physical, as well as mental, fitness.

Open to everyone, the non-competitive event takes place at the Midtown Le Sporting Club Sanctuaire on May 5. The co-chairs are Liz Wiener, a mental health advocate and former patient of the JGH’s psychiatry department, and Justin Lessard-Wajcer, who, at age 21, already has a reputation for his neuroscience research, as well as his leadership in getting young adults to take care for their mental health.

Raising money for mental health is not an easy sell, the organizers stress, but Mindstrong has netted almost $4 million so far. This year’s goal is $200,000. Each participant must raise a minimum of $500.

“That’s unheard of in the world,” said Wiener. “People are hesitant to associate their name with the cause of mental health because of the stigma.”

Mindstrong is countering that with its upbeat and energetic event.

“A fun day is important, but also are the personal stories that people tell,” said Wiener, who was treated two years ago and has been candid about her struggles.

“Others are sharing their stories, like Lee Haberkorn of Virgin Radio. Hearing from real people who have experienced mental illness is making a difference.”

A third-year neuroscience student at the Université de Montréal, Lessard-Wajcer is a research associate at the McGill University-affiliated Douglas Institute of Mental Health.

He created Neuropresse, a mental health educational initiative aimed at university students, who he says are not well informed. For the past two years, he has been a mental health ambassador for the JGH Foundation.

Participants in the daylong Mindstrong event can partake in as many of the various exercise classes as they want.

“With the funds raised each year, we are expanding the scope of our work,” said JGH psychiatrist-in-chief Dr. Karl Looper. “We are promoting mental health awareness in high schools, facilitating access to young people with mental health problems, contributing to the training of mental health professionals, helping families of patients with mental illness, developing new services for autism spectrum disorder and making a massive investment in the renewal of infrastructure for mental health facilities at the JGH.

“After four years, the Mindstrong fitness event has proven that people care about mental health, that attitudes are changing and that we can make a difference for the many individuals suffering from mental health problems and their families.”