The Jewish community has begun to wake up and take notice of the unmet needs of individuals dealing with depression and other forms of mental illness. Chazkeinu is an organization that began as the brainchild of a few women who had never met each other, but connected with the help of divine intervention. Through a common acquaintance and a website that offers support for mental illness, they joined together with a shared passion and enthusiasm to make a difference in the mental health community. These women each had a vision and a desire to help create something to help Jewish women dealing with mental illness as well as friends and family members of those with mental illness.

Chazkeinu is a peer-led organization, not a group of mental health professionals. The stigma concerning mental illness in the world at large, and especially in the Jewish world, is so great that many people are afraid to admit that they may be struggling. Many are embarrassed by the very existence of mental illness in their families or in themselves and they seek to hide it. This attitude can prevent those struggling from getting the treatment they need.

The four founding women, all residing in different cities, were driven to make an impact. Chazkeinu was launched on March 7 with its first phone meeting and continues to offer meetings weekly. Each phone meeting has a moderator and a speaker. The speaker tells her story for 20 minutes and then other women can share what resonated with them. Women can speak using their real first names, or they may use fake names if they prefer to remain anonymous. They also have the option not to be heard on the line at all, but to have their comments shared for them by sending an e-mail to [email protected] during the call.

On the last Monday of each month, the speaker is a mental health professional. At the end of each call a chapter of Tehillim (perek 23) is read in Hebrew and English. Calls are one hour in length and take place on Monday evenings at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST. To call in, dial 605-475-4000 using access code 952819#. This courageous group of women is trying to spread the word as much as they can through social media (they have their own closed Facebook group and are posting on others) and Jewish websites and publications. They are also distributing flyers. Word of mouth is promoting awareness of Chazkeinu and their numbers are growing.

In the span of one month the number of participants on the calls doubled, from 15 callers at the first meeting to 30 callers at the fourth meeting. In the spirit of anonymity, the calls are not recorded. The group also asks that what is mentioned at the meetings not be repeated. In this way they can maintain a safe and non-judgmental environment where everyone can feel comfortable sharing.

The group offers a Partner Program for additional support. Women are paired up to check in with each other during the week. This is a peer program—neither partner is cast in the role of sole beneficiary—and they ask that each partner check in with their partner and give encouragement when possible.

They will be sending out a contact list (of those who wish to share their contact info) on a monthly basis (hopefully on Rosh Chodesh) so women can make and receive support calls and e-mails from other participants. In addition, this group is open to women dealing with the mental illness of any family member. Teens are also welcome on the line.

As of now their callers come from all over the US and parts of Canada. They hope to extend their support to international callers soon, with additional meetings at varying times of day. Eventually the goal would be to host multiple meetings throughout the week, at different times, to give more women an opportunity to join.

Teaneck resident Ruth Roth was a speaker at one of the phone support groups, sharing her very personal experience of the suicide of her son Jonathan. It is women like Roth who empower others to share their stories as well and seek support and help from others.

Chazkeinu is a non-profit organization and as of now no formal fundraising has been done and there is no capital to spend. It is completely free to join. Eventually, they would like to raise money for marketing, creating a website and other future programs. They would also like to have a retreat down the line so that participants can meet each other, have face-to-face support meetings and hear from speakers in person.

The organizers have big plans for the future. “We intend to offer scholarships to those in need. In addition, we hope for a monthly e-mail newsletter to come out in the near future,” they told The Jewish Link in a statement. They are offering the opportunity to dedicate a phone meeting, as well as other Chazkeinu programs, in memory or honor of a loved one by e-mailing [email protected].

“Although we are young and small now, we hope to grow much larger and to help those looking for some peer support in dealing with challenges of mental illness. Our goal is to help end the stigma. Our mantra is ‘We strengthen ourselves through strengthening each other.’ We look forward to Chazkeinu strengthening many as it continues to make an impact on the Jewish mental health community.”

By Banji Ganchrow

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