Online community spirit becomes reality

A child and adolescent psychiatrist teams up with an internet group in order to transform people's attitude toward mental illness from one of fear to one of tolerance.

playing music 88 224 (photo credit: Aimee Neistat)
playing music 88 224
(photo credit: Aimee Neistat)
People of the 21st century are well aware that almost every social activity has gone online. There are online chat rooms, dating forums, and even online communities. At times the virtual world can detract from the "real" world - such as when children prefer to chat with their friends online rather than meet up at the park. At other times, the virtual world can help people achieve real-life goals - like when an online date leads to a white wedding. Dr. Lital Steingart, a psychiatrist, recently discovered the power of the "E-world." Through the help of an online community, she generated NIS 30,000 of revenue at a fundraiser for Shalvata Mental Health Center - in one night. Last year, Steingart, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, dreamt of creating a fundraising event that would achieve two goals simultaneously: raise money to pay for recreational activities for Shalvata's adolescent patients; and transform people's attitude toward mental illness from one of fear to one of tolerance. Steingart approached the online community at to see what they thought of her idea. The event, Be'Kivun Ha'Ruach (In the Spirit's Direction; BH), was to be an evening where, for a single entrance fee, people could take part in a variety of recreational activities - the sort Steingart wished to make available for her patients. Dozens of Beshutaf's members volunteered to organize the event. Beshutaf is a social networking community whose members - unlike those of many online communities - actually meet and do things together, explained Nir Esterman, Beshutaf member and co-event manager of BH. Beshutaf was founded in September 2006 by Inbar Riss and Ariel Winter. Winter, who studies psychology and computer science, believed that he could "take advantage of the power of groups… to make positive changes in society." Beshutaf opened as a place where people could meet - not only online, but in real-life events created by its members. "[Riss and I] saw the need for people to gather and meet, to do something with meaning - not just hang out at bars and pubs," said Winter. "As you get older, it becomes harder to find a place where you feel you belong. When you're in the army or when you're at university, you're part of a community," Winter said. But, he explained, as people get older they often feel that they no longer belong to an identifiable network. "We created Beshutaf to be the 'Scouts' of people in their 30s. A place where they belong, feel a part of a community, meet, share values and create events both for fun and [charitable causes]." Via Beshutaf, Steingart gathered 182 volunteers to create and run BH. On a Saturday night in early March, Tel Aviv's Beit Barbour building was humming with activity on each of its three floors. On the ground floor, a three-piece band saturated the atmosphere with jazz music, while a crepe stand across the room filled the air with the smell of melted Nutella chocolate spread. Moving upstairs, guests bustled past each other as though they were on a busy New York street, making their way toward their chosen activities that would start on the hour. Whether it was participating in a Thai Chi class, receiving spiritual healing or a Shiatsu massage, learning the secrets of professional makeup or listening to a lecture about the stock exchange - there was no shortage of activities. Each program was selected to reflect the types of activities Steingart wanted to make available to her hospitalized patients at Shalvata, and each activity was hosted by volunteers. Steingart's Shalvata supervisors, Dr. Shmuel Kron, the hospital's medical director, and Dr. Gidi Ratzoni, head of Shalvata's Adolescent Department, were particularly supportive of Steingart's initiative. None of the profits from BH would go toward equipment or medicine, Ratzoni explained, but rather toward recreational activities for Shalvata's patients. The hospital's budget does not allow for the things that would fulfill adolescents' social needs, Ratzoni said. Additional funding allows patients to go to the movies, have parties and eat occasionally at takeout restaurants - all things that other teenagers likely take for granted. The problem of insufficient funding does not stop there. "The mental health system in Israel generally, and particularly youth mental health, is suffering from a severe lack of resources," said Kron. "We need at least double the amount of clinicians and facilities to treat youth [at a standard comparable] to the average [level of treatment] of other Western countries…." Israel is very poor in terms of resources for mental health treatment, said Kron, which he finds very surprising. "You would expect that in a country with both serious sources of crises and mental health risks on the one hand, and a very high level of medicine generally on the other, that mental health [services] wouldn't be so far behind other health care services… But the reality is that mental health in Israel has been seriously neglected over the past six decades." An event like BH, which raises young people's awareness of mental health issues, is something that could really benefit the field, said Kron. Ratzoni agreed that raising the public's awareness of mental health issues would considerably aid their recovery. But he sees it from a non-financial perspective. One of the biggest problems in getting mentally ill children treated is usually the stigma associated with hospitalization. "Some children suffer a lot and don't come because the parents are afraid," he said. This is unfortunate, he said, because it is estimated that 11 percent of adolescents suffer from some kind of psychological disorder - behavioral problems, anxiety, drugs or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, attention deficit disorder or others. Only a very small percentage of teenagers actually need hospitalization, but many could benefit from some form of professional assistance, he said. Be'Kivun Ha'Ruach attracted hundreds of guests, making Kron and Ratzoni very proud of their young physician. As the event wore its way into the dark hours of the night, the hourly workshops continued and a variety concert was held in the adjacent auditorium. The event, which generated NIS 30,000, made a net profit of NIS 17,000 - four times the amount Shalvata spent on recreational activities for the entire year of 2007.