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Heading in the right direction

Improving mental health literacy within communities is crucial to achieving better outcomes, and saving lives. The AJN looks at what JewishCare NSW and Jewish Care Victoria are doing in this space.

Participants of a recent Youth Mental Health First Aid training course run by Jewish Care Victoria.
Participants of a recent Youth Mental Health First Aid training course run by Jewish Care Victoria.

Jewish Care Victoria

Talking point: The importance of mental health literacy

Cassandra Barrett is Jewish Care Victoria’s program manager for Healthy Communities, manager of its Mental Health Education Response and the recipient of the inaugural Joshua Levi Young Professional Award, presented at the B’nai B’rith and JNF 2021 Jewish Changemaker Awards.

Every year, 1 in 5 Australians will experience a diagnosable mental illness. In Victoria’s Jewish population, that equates to 10,000 people. Yet two-thirds of Australians affected do not seek help. Why?

Barrett: There are lots of different factors at play and it varies for each person. But in general, we know that stigma plays a significant role.

People might feel too embarrassed or ashamed to seek help; they might feel concerned about what others will think of them. That’s especially relevant in a small, close-knit community like ours, and for men in particular, who are often encouraged to be stoic and self-reliant.

People might not know how to access the mental health system, or the cost, or waiting times, might be prohibitive. Some may not believe anyone can help them, or feel they would be a burden.

Also they, or their family, may not realise they’re experiencing mental illness.

Improving mental health literacy is a key element of Jewish Care Victoria’s mental health community education strategy. So, what is it, and why is it so crucial?

Barrett: Mental health literacy is the ability to recognise the common signs that may indicate mental illness, and knowing how, or where, to go for help. It can also include knowledge of protective factors, actions and behaviours that help support good mental health. It doesn’t mean being an expert – it’s about knowing enough of the basics to make a difference.

It’s crucial because we know that an effective mental health response is not just about professional support; it’s also about the informal peer/social support.

The ability of loved ones, friends, workplaces and schools to provide appropriate support, encourage help-seeking and recognise when someone is having a hard time – and be able to name that – is vital to positive mental health outcomes. It also creates the social change we want to see around mental health stigma.

Has Jewish Care Victoria noticed any difference in the prevalence of mental health-related problems affecting families, and youth in particular, since the start of the pandemic?

Barrett: We know that mental health isn’t a static state, but rather a spectrum. For most of us, COVID is like nothing we’d experienced before, and I’d say the vast majority of people have seen some loss in their wellbeing in that time. And that’s an entirely normal response to an abnormal situation.

We’re seeing families coming forward in need of support – and often depression, or anxiety, is part of what’s happening.

The data is still emerging in terms of the impact for young people, but certainly increased feeling of anxiety is something we’re noticing. Also loneliness, and significant data suggests that eating disorders have increased.

And this is happening in the context of adolescence, which is already a challenging time, and the peak period for onset of mental illness.

I want to emphasise though, how incredibly resilient and adaptable young people have been during this time. I keep saying to young people I’ve trained: you’re going to have amazing stuff to say in job interviews about coping with adversity.

How are programs at Jewish Care Victoria that focus on the mental health of adolescents and children, as opposed to adults or seniors, tailored to cover their needs?

Barrett: We deliver programming to those who support young people – parents, carers, teachers and youth leaders – and also programs specifically for young people.

For parents, it’s often about building their comfort and skills to support a young person who’s having a hard time. But also bringing awareness to the positive role families can play – in communicating with young people and in helping them to develop their own skills to look after their wellbeing. Because young people often communicate in very different ways to adults, it’s also about being sensitive and creative, able to listen and put a bit more effort into how you engage a young person in conversation.

In our offerings for young people, it might be connecting them to support that meets their needs if they’re not well, or providing opportunities for engagement, guidance and connection through mentoring programs.

What’s common to both types of programming is an acknowledgement of the developmental context of adolescence, the vulnerabilities that can impart, the need to be empathetic and understanding, and being alert and responsive to the warning signs to maximise early intervention.

What feedback have you had from people doing the Youth Mental Health First Aid Course, or a related program or workshop?

Barrett: We had a particularly strong response regarding the ‘Coping with Transitions’ parent education sessions we ran as lockdowns were lifting last year. The feedback from parents was they really appreciated the reassuring approach, and practical advice, to support kids to navigate the anxiety of going back into the classroom. Many said their children are now able to talk more about their feelings.

We’re fortunate to work regularly with madrichim via the Australasian Zionist Youth Council, to run Youth Mental Health First Aid training, especially prior to kids going on camp. Camp leaders often say the training helped them to respond to a camper having a panic attack, or start a conversation with a young person they were worried about. Some say it’s the most important training they’ve done.

What is your best advice for parents or guardians of a young person experiencing a mental health-related problem?

Barrett: Stay calm, take a deep breath and know that mental illness is common; it’s in no way the end of the world and you and your child are absolutely not alone.

Listen more than you speak. Often what they are looking for when they reach out is not necessarily advice, but to be genuinely listened to.

And for the young person, what would be your key message?

Barrett: Keep talking and exploring safe ways to find the support that’s right for you and know that it is not uncommon for that to take a few tries.

If you’re not sure where to start, ask someone – a parent, a friend, a teacher. Organisations such as Jewish Care and HeadtoHelp can help you explore options.

Most of all, keep going. I know it feels hard right now, but don’t feel things can’t get better. You’re important and worthy.

Jewish Care Victoria offers a range of community mental health education, training and support programs. For more information, visit jewishcare.org.au or phone (03) 8517 5999.

Jewish Care NSW

Talking point: The life-saving potential of mental health first aid

Ultimately, someone who has done this course can help save a life … it’s appropriate for anybody and everybody to do – in fact, I’d say it’s vital,” JewishCare NSW’s suicide prevention co-ordinator Emma Cohen said of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training.

In the past 4.5 years, close to 2000 adult community members have completed either the youth, standard or older person-focused streams of the internationally recognised MHFA courses that JewishCare provides.

This has included 125 Moriah College high school teachers in the past 12 months, 85 Emanuel School teachers and also staff from Kesser Torah College, completing the youth-focused course.

The courses are free, thanks to generous sponsorship from individuals and organisations, including JCA, Wolper Jewish Hospital Foundation and The Giving Tree – for the youth stream – which is being offered next on February 24 and 25, and then May 10 and 11.

But first, some context. Cohen and JewishCare’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Program manager Claire Gil-Munoz point out that delivering MHFA training – and also specific suicide prevention courses – as widely as possible to community members and communal organisations is a key pillar of the Jewish Suicide Prevention Strategy.

Launched in late 2017, managed by JewishCare NSW and featuring a committee with a representative from 20 organisations – from Sydney’s Jewish day schools and Hatzolah Sydney to synagogues, Shalom and Jewish House – the Strategy is based on the Black Dog Institute’s Lifespan Framework.

Gil-Munoz said, “It is everyone’s responsibility to be mental health literate, because that’s what enables a whole-of-community approach.”

So what are the nuts and bolts of MHFA, and the youth-focused stream in particular? Basically, it trains people how to provide help – as the first point of call – to someone developing or showing symptoms of a mental health problem or crisis, until appropriate professional treatment can be provided.

Including a combination of e-learning modules and small group, instructor-led Zoom sessions, Gil-Munoz explained, “First it looks at the data and research about the prevalence of youth mental health illness in Australia and globally, and then upskills people to recognise the signs and symptoms of different mental health problems, and the differences between them.

“It also covers the roles that different mental health professionals can provide, depending on what an individual’s presentations are, and also how to feel confident, comfortable and able to have a conversation with them in the appropriate way, rather than being absolutely alarmed every time those two words are mentioned – mental health.”

The topics covered in the youth-focused stream include depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders and substance abuse, plus crises such as panic attacks.

“The training is very comprehensive and practical, and we practice, in small groups, the appropriate language to use to approach a person, and to show empathy, support and care in communication, to encourage them to get help,” said Cohen.

“Sometimes they are difficult words to use – for example, asking someone for the first time if they are thinking about taking their own life – but using them is the most important thing you can do.”

Cohen emphasised that “the more that we can talk about mental health and suicide prevention, the more we can reduce the stigma around it, so that someone is more able to put up their hand and ask for help”.

“It can’t be perceived as a taboo subject, because if you are experiencing poor mental health, it is a very lonely place if you feel you can’t talk about it – and that’s where the training comes in.”

Cohen described the positive feedback received by JewishCare, from those who have completed the youth-focused MHFA course, as common, heartfelt and inspiring.

“We’ve had parents send us emails to say they did the course just out of interest, but within days or weeks of completing it, they were able to use their new knowledge and skills to help someone,” she said. “One parent wrote that she was with a friend, and clearly recognised signs of her anxiety she would never have known to look out for, and was then able to ask her about it, and arrange to take her to a GP.

“A youth leader who decided to do the course after telling us that at a previous camp, she had been approached by a kid who talked about feeling depressed and wanting to self-harm. That situation scared her, because she had no idea how best to respond.

“After doing the course, she felt completely confident that if a similar scenario occurred, she would be able to listen, empathise and know what support resources to offer the child.”

Cohen added that volunteers for the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia’s Mum for Mum support program had told her recently that the course, “by teaching them the appropriate questions to ask, may have helped save a life”.

Hearing that always gives me goosebumps.”

To find out more about JewishCare’s Mental Health First Aid courses, phone (02) 9302 8014 or email familyandfriends@jewishcare.com.au

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