One million people whose voices are not heard

Families are thirsty for information, in need of assistance and professional tools to guide them.

Psychiatric medication illustrative (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Psychiatric medication illustrative
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It is no secret that people afflicted with a mental health disorder suffer from a severe social stigma, often foregoing treatment rather than having to identify with and accept being a part of that stigmatized group. Parents who have a child suffering from a mental health problem, and siblings who have adult brothers and sisters with mental health issues, are daily witnesses to their loved one’s distress.
Very often the situation seems hopeless. Families are thirsty for information, in need of assistance and professional tools to guide them. And most important of all, they need someone to listen to them in their time of distress with tender loving care.
In Israel, one in four people experience a mental health crisis, a rocky experience that can be painful, confusing and imbue that person with a sense of helplessness. Not only does this affect the afflicted individual but it affects their relatives as well.
Today, 250,000 people in Israel suffer from a mental health disorder, and hundreds and thousands of close relatives as well as caregivers are in need of assistance. Almost one million individuals live with blame, shame and an all-encompassing stigma that becomes hard to handle, together with the emotional burden involved in caring for a mentally ill individual. Some family members cope with this by temporarily concealing or trying to dismiss the situation. Only a few dare to break the barrier of shame and discover that the road to recovery only begins after acknowledging the situation and sharing it with their friends and community.
It is our responsibility as professionals to do everything we can to help family members break through this barrier; to help them realize that they are not alone; that there are people out there who will listen to them; that there are other families in the same situation; and that, together, they will be more able to navigate the stormy waters.
It was with this goal in mind that MILAM, the Center for Family Counseling Services, was founded. MILAM is supervised and funded by the Health Ministry, operating 12 centers and branches across the country. Serving the families of individuals with mental illness, MILAM provides mental health support and helps them navigate the system as well as exercise their rights to governmental benefits to which they are entitled.
During the past year, Milam’s centers have assisted 1,600 family members. Since its establishment in 2016, we have supported more than 10,000 family members. MILAM’S services are provided free of charge.
We were surprised to discover just how little families knew about the benefits to which they and their loved ones were entitled. As a result, we started making greater effort to assist them cope with the hardships associated with supporting a loved one with mental health issues, by offering support groups as well as providing assistance in navigating entry to state institutions. We have also undertaken to connect family members by holding an annual national family conference and retreat, subsidized by the Health Ministry. At this conference, relatives are able to find relief from their hardships and meet other individuals and families facing similar situations.
But, 1,600 families are a drop in the ocean. In order to raise awareness among families about the support available to them, and to help them to utilize their benefits starting from the early stages of coping, the Health Ministry must tailor an even broader plan in order to reach these families.
Public discourse surrounding mental illness must be fostered and encouraged. It is also important to discuss the implications that various life circumstances have on individuals’ mental health as well as on the quality of life of their family members. We envision that with suitable assistance, close family members of those afflicted with mental illnesses will succeed in standing by them and helping their loved ones improve both their emotional and mental health while transforming their own daily lives and reality from suffering and pain to strength and acceptance.
The writer is the CEO of ENOSH-the Israeli Mental Health Association.