Providing English mental healthcare at the Jerusalem Mental Health expo

A clearer picture of the range of mental health services available in Israel to the English-speaking community.

 Jerusalem Mental Health Expo (logo). (photo credit: Tsiona David)
Jerusalem Mental Health Expo (logo).
(photo credit: Tsiona David)

For many in Israel’s English-speaking community, dealing with mental health issues can be difficult, complicated and confusing. Diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues can be trying under the best of circumstances, and locating appropriate English-speaking practitioners can add layers of complexity. Navigating and understanding the mental health services offered through the Health Ministry can be frustrating, and the shortage of qualified psychiatrists in this country does not help matters.

This coming Monday, May 16, the clouds will lift, the mists will disappear, and a clearer picture of the range of mental health services available in Israel to the English-speaking community will be presented at the First Annual Jerusalem Mental Health Expo, which will be held at Jerusalem’s Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus, at 10 Yitzhak Rabin Boulevard.

The expo is being sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work in Israel and three leading English-language mental health organizations in Israel – Relief Resources Israel, Machon Dvir and Kav L’Noar – as well as Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center, the Jerusalem Municipality, Clalit Health Services and the ICA – Israeli Center for Addiction.

The expo, which will be open from 9:30 a.m. until 7 p.m., will include panels of experts addressing mental health issues, booths staffed by leading English-speaking mental health services, and, according to its promotional literature, will help people “learn to navigate Israel’s mental health system.”

Nechama Munk, director of Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work in Israel, says, “In general, the mental health system in Israel, which is under the authority of the Ministry of Health, is not very developed in the services that it provides.”

 HELP IS within reach for English speakers. (credit: Joshua Fuller/Unsplash) HELP IS within reach for English speakers. (credit: Joshua Fuller/Unsplash)

Munk explains that general health services are more accessible than mental health services. “It’s hard enough to get to the doctors you need when you need them, but when it comes to mental health, it is much more complicated.”

Munk, who, in addition to her responsibilities at Wurzweiler, is a therapist in private practice, adds, “One of our basic values is to provide services to people in need and to the community, and this seemed up our alley to be able to provide information to the public regarding how to navigate the system here in Israel, along with the different topics and subjects that we will have in the panels.”

On top of the difficulties inherent in the Israeli mental health system and the language barrier, Monk says that mental health still has a stigma attached to it, which contributes to the general sense of ignorance about the subject.

She adds that mental health providers are largely unregulated in Israel.

“There are social workers and psychologists,” she says, “but anyone can call themselves a therapist and open a clinic, and a lot of people are doing damage by not working through professional guidelines.”

The general theme of the expo this year is resilience, says Monk, who explains that the theme is particularly appropriate as the world emerges from the pandemic.

Monk says that COVID did not create new mental health issues but exacerbated existing difficulties.

“COVID brought existing issues to the surface and made it difficult to escape,” she explains. “If you were being abused in your home and during the day you couldn’t leave, you couldn’t escape it. If your marriage wasn’t good and now you were stuck together, you couldn’t escape. It created a situation where the regular avenues that we have to relieve ourselves or to escape weren’t available. Everything was shut down, and the people who were lonely were much lonelier, and the people who were depressed became more depressed.”

The expo will include seven panels conducted by experts in the field on navigating the Israeli mental healthcare system, the impact of trauma on mental health, resilience and mental health, Halacha (Jewish law) and mental health, choosing the right mental health provider, raising children and teens in Israel, and innovations in mental health.

No Jewish conference would be complete without a keynote speaker, and the Jerusalem Mental Health Expo is no exception. Dr. David Pelcovitz, Straus Professor of Psychology and Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, a noted psychologist and clinician who has conducted extensive research in trauma, child abuse and parenting, will be speaking on “The Magic of the Ordinary: Promoting Resilience in Complicated Times.”

RELIEF RESOURCES is an international nonprofit that provides mental health guidance, education, and treatment recommendations for individuals.

Shlomo Katz, director of its Israel office, explains that the organization performs free, targeted mental health referrals when people call for help. “We help them get to the best clinician for their specific situation. As opposed to going on Google and saying, ‘I need therapy, and I need a psychiatrist,’ and then having to decide who would fit their specific situation, we meet clinicians, we interview them, and when someone calls, we can get them to the clinicians who are best for you, based on symptoms, personality, location, taking different factors into account and getting people to the best clinician for the specific situation.”

Katz says that the expo is significant for the English-speaking community because many of its members are not aware of the mental health services that are available.

“People are shocked to learn that they can get an Anglo-mentality English-speaking clinician,” says Katz. “A lot of people think that all that is available is an Israeli who may speak English. We can pair them up with someone who understands their mentality.”

He adds that one of the main functions of the expo will be educating members of the English-speaking public about the numerous mental health services.

“There is a tremendous amount of services available that people are not aware of,” says Katz.

He adds that there is even a degree of ignorance among mental health providers about available services. “Those who are helping are not aware of the other organizations that are available that aren’t doing the same things. There are many organizations that are out there to help, and everybody is doing it a bit different or doing something else completely. We really can work together. The fact that the organizations know about each other is a fantastic thing. I’ve developed relationships from this that I have used on a daily basis that are tremendous, which means that I can then help people better.”

Ellie Rothstein, executive director of Kav L’Noar, says that the cooperation between the different organizations in creating the expo has been historic.

“It’s just unbelievable,” he comments. “As I was growing up in the nonprofit world in Israel over the last 10 years, if you would speak to one organization and ask them ‘Would you work together with this organization,’ or ‘Do you?’ it was always, ‘No, I can’t trust them because of this,’ or ‘No, they have this issue.’ or ‘No, I don’t work with anybody,’ or ‘We’re fighting for the same donors,’ whatever it may be. Here we have this expo happening, and all those organizations have come together to build it. I really think it’s historic.”

Kav L’Noar, the organization he heads, provides no-cost outpatient psychotherapy services for children, teens, adults, couples and families from the English-speaking community of Beit Shemesh and its surrounding communities, and teen therapy programs in Jerusalem funded by the health funds (kupot holim).

Rothstein explains that clients feel more comfortable when the services are tailored toward their needs. “We [Kav L’Noar] have a certain cultural sensitivity [which makes us aware] that an Anglo coming into a [mental health] clinic [in Israel] who does not know a single word of Hebrew, especially a new immigrant, will not feel comfortable in the clinic. But if they are coming to a clinic that looks like their hometown, and they can talk to the therapist with their culture and language, that obviously makes the therapeutic alliance that much greater.”

Rothstein says that the organization also educates about issues relating to mental health and Jewish law, and how rabbis can respond and relate to issues of mental health.

As also expressed by Katz, Rothstein says that the expo will be beneficial for mental health professionals as well. “The environment that we are in – all these nonprofits work in their own silo and don’t work together, and the actual consumers get less benefit because they don’t know where to go, and the nonprofits don’t know how to push it along.

“The expo can fight that issue because all these nonprofits are going to be there, and we are all presenting together and working together to actually build this. I think that changes the environment, which I think is so essential, especially in the mental health spheres, where people are walking around so more fragile and so much more sensitive. To be pushed around from one organization to another, without [the organizations] knowing how to work together, I think, is more damaging than it’s ever been in the past.”

In Rothstein’s view, the expo’s theme of resilience after corona is relevant not only to the attendees but to the organizations as well.

“The goal of the expo is that organizations should begin to work together. Working together, by definition, creates a resilience because you have a stronger skill set to work from, and by collaborating and working together, we can help our beneficiaries that much better.”

When asked about the role that the pandemic has played in mental health, Rothstein bristles and says, “I feel like I get that question a lot, and I get bothered by it every time it gets asked, because I think it’s the wrong frame of mind. I don’t think that the issues have changed. I think that they’ve been maybe exacerbated, but they’ve come more to the forefront.

“The thing that bothers me is that it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to put these issues at the forefront. Because the world is only getting more and more challenging by the day. The pressure that we’re living under and that I’m living under – I can only imagine how much pressure my kids are going to live under. The pandemic perhaps brought it into the light, but I think that the issues have always been there.”

Rothstein attributes the timing of holding the expo at this time to two factors – one being new leadership in the nonprofit sector, and the other being trends in fundraising that have been affected by the pandemic.

“I think there’s been a shift in leadership in the nonprofit sector in general,” he says. “I think that the leadership is newer, younger, and creating a pressure for the collaboration, which I think is healthy and wonderful.”

In addition, adds Rothstein, the pandemic has had a negative effect on the nonprofit sector. “The fundraising trends have shifted, the amount that people are spending has shifted, and the availability to actually meet with the donors has shifted. I think that those factors together have created an atmosphere where the organizations can start to collaborate because they are all in the same boat.”

Rothstein suggests that more priority should be given to nonprofit organizations to help them increase their capacities and services. “That means both funding and a perspective shift in terms of how the outside world looks at nonprofits, and I think that by creating an expo, it’s also a statement that says, ‘Look at us in a different way than you’ve always looked at us before.’ I think that’s also something important here.”

IT IS noteworthy that the event’s official title is the First Annual Jerusalem Mental Health Expo. Clearly, event organizers are planning on turning the expo into an annual event and hope to target different areas of mental health in the coming years.

Says Munk, “We knew we had to start somewhere, but we definitely think that this is something that can happen yearly and target different areas of mental health, so that we can give more detailed and more professional information each year. This was a kind of a launching.”

The planners of this year’s expo hope that the well-defined picture of mental health services presented next week will remain not just for that day, but permanently. ❖