April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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Project Ometz: Courage to Help Parents Face Their Child’s Mental Illness

Teaneck—In our community, when a family faces a serious physical illness, meals arrive as if by magic. Carpools are taken over, and friends text and call, asking if they can run errands or take care of any little thing. However, when a child’s illness is not physically obvious, parents often struggle in secret. Even if they know about it, fellow community members tend to stand back. They’re unsure of what to say or do. Parents sometimes pretend nothing is wrong, but any illness affects the entire family. Regardless, they feel isolated and alone; sometimes they have no idea where to turn.

Alissa Horn, of Teaneck, discovered something extraordinarily important during her seven years working as a caseworker for Chai Lifeline, an organization dedicated to addressing the non-medical needs of families with ill children. “With Chai Lifeline, I saw how essential support was with families dealing with illness. I knew how common mental illness was in the community and I really felt there was a void,” she told The Jewish Link. “The stigma of mental illness is really a barrier to people getting their kids evaluated, to getting their kids the right help they need. It’s not a thing people talk about,” she said.

“All illness impacts the whole family, especially one that’s covered in shame,” Horn added. She discussed this very key issue last summer with Rabbi Ari Zahtz, who, since 2008, has served as assistant rabbi of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, the largest shul in Teaneck. (As an aside, Horn noted that Rabbi Zahtz is known as a doer, and a similar conversation Horn had with him several years ago resulted in i-Shine, an afterschool program for Chai Lifeline families, coming to Teaneck.)

Regarding mental health, she said, “We know there are support groups in the community, and that’s amazing. We are really trying to address parents. We are recognizing how hard that struggle is for parents.”

“Over the years I have tried to pair parents up so they don’t feel isolated or alone on this scary new path. But a lot of them are still reluctant to talk about it because of the stigma attached to it,” Rabbi Zahtz told The Jewish Link.

To this end, Rabbi Zahtz and Horn are in the midst of launching a new organization called Project Ometz. Their goal is to attack the stigma by speaking about it publicly, while also providing peer support to those at the beginning or in the midst of dealing with a difficult diagnosis with their children. Rabbi Zahtz, this past Shabbat, spoke about their concerns from the pulpit, announcing the creation of the organization at Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, bringing together all of the shul’s multiple minyanim for a single drasha. As part of the official launch, the entire community is invited to a teleconference featuring Dr. David Pelcovitz this coming Monday evening, February 27 (see flyer on this page).

Falling under the purview of Project Ometz will be those dealing with diagnoses including depression, anxiety and eating disorders as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder and other personality disorders, the co-founders said. The project is geared specifically toward supporting parents, as parents are the ones who advocate for their child until they reach the age of 18. The peer support will focus on helping parents help their child get the support he or she needs, and empowering the parents to deal with their child’s mental health issues in a productive, healthy way.

Rabbi Zahtz explained that Project Ometz—Hebrew for courage—will be a project of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, like Project Ezrah was approximately 15 years ago, and is meant for those within the community of RCBC shuls. “Our goal is not to go big. If this model is successful, we hope that other communities will take our model and use it themselves. I believe there is a greater chance of success if we keep it small,” he said.

“Someone with personal experience will be matched up with someone beginning the journey, providing a non-judgmental, empathetic ear,” said Rabbi Zahtz.

“Rabbi Zahtz and I came up with this idea together, but then, we said, we need a professional. We needed a mental health professional,” said Horn, to provide the training for mentors and function as a clinical, professional voice for the organization.

Rabbi Zahtz knew Martin Galla personally and thought he would be a great fit. Galla, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), has been hired as Project Ometz’s advisor. Galla is currently assistant director of the Yeshiva University Counseling Center, has an MSW and is currently in the process of completing a PhD in the field as well. In his role at Project Ometz, Martin will be responsible for leading the Parent Mentor Volunteer (PMV) training workshops and overseeing the client intake as well as the PMV assignment process. He will also be available to address PMV questions or concerns, and mentor Horn, who will assist him.

Galla told The Jewish Link that there are many ways that parents cope with mental health issues in children, so he can help guide the process for the mentors. “As with all personal concerns and experiences, people internalize and address issues and challenges in different ways. Some people struggle with the initial awareness of a problem and accepting that an issue exists, while others struggle with whether or not it is appropriate to get help in the first place and if so, how. We hope to be an address where parents can expect to find support and validation from peers for their particular problem,” he said.

Horn has, in fact, gone back to school for her MSW degree at Fordham University, a program known for having a strong clinical focus. After working as a speech-language pathologist, and then working at Chai Lifeline, going back to school felt odd at first. “This was not my fieldwork in terms of education. At first it was strange; I have children in graduate school,” she joked. “But really, it was very challenging at first, but now I am used to it,” she said.

Horn noted that Galla has been extraordinarily helpful so far and has helped build parameters and guidelines in terms of how a mentor can and should help someone. “They have to be a good listener, and know what to offer and what not to offer parents.” The mentor will not necessarily be matched up with someone with the exact shared experience, but something similar.

“People who are experiencing similar difficulties can create a compassionate and empathic relationship based on common understanding and validation. This commonality, and the unique ability to relate, creates a relationship that taps into a powerful social force; the ability of peers to connect with, actively listen to, and support,” added Galla.

The mentors, of which there are already approximately 10 lined up, will specifically not function in an anonymous fashion. Although their names will not be made public, they will be known to their fellow mentors. “The parent volunteers, men and women, will have regular meetings, to review where we stand. We will have a shared mission to work together; the parent volunteers will know each other. Martin will be there to address concerns, as he will always be there to address concerns that they might have,” said Horn.

“Anybody who is going to be a mentor is going to have to be able to share. If they can’t share themselves to other parent mentors, that’s not going to be ok. We understand that things are confidential, but as clients are revealing themselves, it can’t be one-sided. But it will be confidential,” she said.

Those assisted by Project Ometz must provide their names. “We thought that sharing names was essential for creating meaningful relationships between parents and mentors. Additionally, not providing names would be perpetuating the stigma,” said Horn.

The organization will be officially launched with the teleconference with Rabbi Zahtz and Dr. Pelcovitz, and all community members are encouraged to call in, not just those currently facing such challenges. “Anyone who brings the topic of mental illness to the table, it’s acknowledging a step toward reducing the stigma,” said Rabbi Zahtz.

The organization is hopeful that more mentors will come forward before the initial set of training sessions. Those interested should please email [email protected].

“We also have no idea what to expect in terms of callers [clients]. Even if we don’t get any calls, the fact that we exist is a step toward breaking down that stigma,” said Horn.

To join the teleconference on Monday evening at 8:15 p.m., call 641-552-9173, and press access code 636984. Callers will not be required to identify themselves by name and all are invited to join, nationwide. For more information, visit http://www.projectometz.org.

By Elizabeth Kratz


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