Grassroots group stresses the importance of talking about mental health

Elissa Kline-Beber, head of student wellness at the York School and a clinical social worker with 25 years experience, will speak about resilience at JFI’s Teen Mental Health Conference.

In an effort to draw attention to the growing mental health crisis in teens and young adults, the Yetta Nashman Jewish Family Institute (JFI) is holding an educational conference in Toronto geared towards parents and their children.

“The first line of defence is to talk about it … just to get the conversation started. We can’t even get to educating if we’re not openly saying, ‘This is something I struggle with, this is something someone in my family struggles with.’ We all need to have this conversation so we can recognize what’s clinical, what’s normal stress, how to know when there is mental illness present, and then we can get to resources and education and what to do from there. But if we’re not talking about it, we’re not even at the education stage,” said Ellie Bass, who has been director of JFI for the past seven years.

JFI, founded in 2003 by the Nashman family and Toronto’s Village Shul, is a grassroots movement that provides  “growth-oriented learning” that blends modern psychology with Jewish wisdom through workshops, classes and programs.

This year, JFI partnered with Aish Toronto to expand its reach to any synagogue, school or organization that is interested in running JFI programs.

Some of the educational programs JFI runs year-round include Meaningful Date Night, where couples and singles get together to learn from relationship experts; ParentingU, a series of workshops and programs that guide parents using research, psychology and Jewish principles; and Israel-Palestine for Critical Thinkers, where participants are encouraged to debate and learn about Israel with author and educator Richard Bass (Ellie’s husband).

Bass said the focus of the inaugural JFI Teen Mental Health Conference, which will be held Feb. 11 at TanenbaumCHAT, was inspired by her sister, Tanya Stoker, who died in 2003 after struggling with bipolar disorder for more than 10 years.


“In many ways it was a full-time job for her, navigating the mental health system – and she ended up taking her own life. Hopefully by opening up the conversation earlier, with kids and with tweens and teens, there might be more support systems and a better structure to support these kids into adulthood,” Bass said.

The conference, Bass said, was organized to offer two tracks – one for parents and one for teens.

“The idea was that the tracks sort of mirror each other, so that the teens and their parents would be getting similar information and have a similar vocabulary to be able to talk about things together.”

She said one of the conference partners, Torah High, offered its students access to the conference for free, as well as volunteer hours to go towards the 40 hours of community service they are required to complete to graduate.

Among the speakers is Elissa Kline-Beber, the head of student wellness at the York School and a clinical social worker with 25 years experience, who will speak about “Finding Resilience” and “Raising Resilience.”

Mark Henick, case manager at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Toronto, who delivered a 2013 TED talk titled “Why we choose suicide,” that has garnered more that 4.5 million views on YouTube, was also scheduled to speak at the conference.

Dr. Allan Kaplan, chief of research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and a University of Toronto professor in the department of psychiatry, is the keynote speaker.

Bass said there is a mental health crisis in teens and first-year college students, and that high school and university professionals are overwhelmed.

“We know there have been serious issues at camps and high schools, and with first-year university students where the universities are really overwhelmed. When I looked at it, I thought this was the greatest need and what needed the most attention,” Bass said.

“Anecdotally, I have a lot of parents who, when I announced the conference, I was quite overwhelmed by how many parents called me and said, ‘My son or daughter has just been diagnosed and I’m struggling, and don’t know how to navigate the system.’ I have friends whose daughters say, “Yeah, I’m on meds and all my friends are on meds.’ From what I’ve seen, from what I’ve read and from what I’ve heard, this is something that has to be addressed.”

She said in addition to educating the community about the issue, an important aspect of the conference is eradicating the stigma that mental health sufferers often encounter.

“When I decided to talk about what happened with my sister, I was cautioned in the community. ‘Maybe if you say that, people will think things about you, or think things about your kids. Maybe you should be careful.’ And I just felt that it would reinforce that stigma and that is exactly what we’re trying to break,” she said.

“If we have cancer, we’ll talk about cancer. If you have mental illness, you should talk about mental illness.”

Bass said she hopes to turn the inaugural conference into an annual educational event.