Naomi Strongin in the Jewish Journal: “As Mental Health Fault Lines Deepen, the Time to Act is Now”

This article was originally published in the Jewish Journal. To view it on their website, click here.

by Naomi Strongin, Vice President, Center for Designed Philanthropy

U.S. Sen. John Fetterman’s (D-Pa.) recent courageous disclosure that he voluntarily sought hospitalization for treatment of depression represented, in many respects, a watershed moment in the public discourse about mental health. Meanwhile, here in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom reiterated his commitment to this important issue, calling on state lawmakers to place on the ballot and voters to pass a $3 billion bond initiative to fund new behavioral-health-based housing and care facilities.

If we have, in fact, turned a corner, the heightened consciousness surrounding mental well-being is a long time coming. It is inarguably an outgrowth of the challenges posed to mental health that mushroomed and spilled into view during the pandemic. No one, from youth to seniors, was spared its impact. Effects ranged from anxiety to profound loneliness brought on by social isolation or worse. The toll was equally heavy on our frontline caregivers, who experienced nervous exhaustion, post-traumatic stress and a sense of hopelessness — particularly during COVID-19’s earliest, darkest days.

It would be naïve, bordering on arrogance, to think that our Jewish communities are somehow immune from these same, often-overpowering consequences. And it’s in part why the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation), the institution where I lead grantmaking, is vigorously supporting mental health and wellness initiatives as it has for at least the past decade. In recent years, we have “doubled down” on those efforts through robust funding as well as advice and information to our family of 1,400 donors on how they can support these initiatives. Likewise, we routinely confer with other institutional funders, seeking intercepts on ways to best leverage grantmaking for greater impact.

Judaism unambiguously instructs us that health refers to both body and mind. This is not a novel notion, but one dating back more than 3,000 years and advanced in multiple books of the Torah, placing precedence on prevention of disease and illness — both physical and mental — of all kinds. In contemporary Jewish Los Angeles, while religious precepts guide us the hard data, as well as insight, understanding and access into the needs of the community, validate and drive our foundation’s funding for mental wellness as it has scaled over the past 10-plus years. The Los Angeles Jewish Federation’s 2021 “Study of Jewish Los Angeles,” the most comprehensive survey of local religious life in nearly a quarter century, included a significant section devoted to physical and mental health. The study’s findings on mental well-being are alarming even while offering proof points that The Foundation’s decade-plus of support is squarely on target.

With 30% of all Jewish households expressing a need for mental-health or substance-abuse treatment, we are at a critical crossroad. Especially so when demand does not, in any way, discriminate by financial condition of the respondents: Nearly 30% of the participants requiring services classified themselves as “well-off,” while 38% of those described themselves as “financially struggling.” By age group, millennials and Gen-Z, despite exterior appearances of youthful invincibility, are those most profoundly affected, with about one-third of 22 to 30-year-olds reporting recent mental or emotional difficulties and “feelings of persistent loneliness some or all of the time.”

Even before these confirming statistics, we had been reaching deep into the community to understand the extent of need and to address and support inspirational, sometimes groundbreaking, work in the mental-wellness field locally. We seek out and listen to the experts on the front lines of this epidemic who are invaluable in informing our granting.

As a result, funding is layered by design, cutting across the expanse of Los Angeles geography and its diverse populations — from teens to seniors, diverse Jews, LGBTQ+, synagogue clergy and staff, and Jewish communal personnel — to make the farthest-reaching potential impact. Since 2011, The Foundation’s funding for Jewish causes addressing mental well-being totals over $4 million, a figure that climbs further if factoring in grants for initiatives that include mental-health components of some kind.

These innovative programs are as inspirational as they are vital. Consider BaMidbar’s Los Angeles Regional Programming Hub, a nine-month wellness fellowship for high school students focused on improving mental health among their peers while equipping educators and parents with the tools to recognize and address these needs among teens. With Foundation support, Hillel at USC launched the Bradley Sonnenberg Wellness Initiative, one of the first-ever at any Hillel in the country, providing mental-health services to Jewish college students, workshops and individualized counseling and support. JQ International created Caring for LGBTQ Jews and Families in Need, a crisis helpline that within its first three years served more than 1,000 individuals with culturally inclusive resources and support, social service referrals and emergency intervention.

Under our Reimagine Grants, which were developed in response to crushing needs arising out of the pandemic, we awarded more than $1 million to 23 local synagogues. The purpose of the grants, in part, was to care for the mental health and well-being of synagogue clergy, staff and lay leaders that resulted from the trauma, burnout and other effects of the pandemic and, in the process, fortify their workplaces. Our rationale was that by addressing wellness among synagogues, we can by extension positively affect and sustain well-being among the memberships of these institutions as a whole, potentially benefiting thousands of people.

Our granting for mental well-being is not confined to the Jewish community. We are commanded as Jews by a call to care for all people: b’tzelem Elohim ( “in the image of God”). Since all humanity is created in the image of God, each person is equally valued and underscores the philosophy behind The Foundation’s general community giving. Over the past decade, grantmaking has been directed to mental-wellness programs supporting veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Mental health should be addressed holistically and included as a funding element irrespective of whether the program’s primary focus is food security, homelessness, Jewish engagement, education or camping. Let it take precedence locally and beyond because need runs far deeper than what any single funder can support. By all indicators, it is growing at a velocity that far outpaces resources, particularly those available from the public sector. Funders, both individuals with the capacity to give and institutional sources, need to step up.

The Talmud teaches that members of the Jewish community are responsible for each other. We are interconnected, and investing in mental wellness has profound implications on the well-being of everyone. Assistance takes many forms. Individuals with interest and commitment can lend volunteer support or serve in lay leadership or in board capacity. Most importantly, though, the conversation needs to remain top of mind, discussed openly and publicly. Funding for this issue cannot become a sidebar as we move away from the direct effects of the pandemic. Staff and lay leaders, whether serving youth or seniors or a specific identity group, should be mindful of their organizations’ programs doing so through a mental-health lens. This necessity extends beyond programming. Funders, foundations and nonprofit organizations can prioritize mental health among their own staffs because, in doing so, it will positively spill over to our constituents.

Mental well-being historically has been an uncomfortable topic to broach, in many ways a taboo subject. Emerging from the pandemic, there seems to be a newfound willingness to discuss it more openly, as Senator Fetterman’s radical honesty and humanity demonstrate. But mental illness is also “invisible,” unlike physical infirmity, and therefore a more amorphous condition. Healing, though, extends far beyond the physical and includes mental, emotional, social and spiritual components. That’s why The Foundation will continue to make support an imperative, but we share an obligation to make it a priority for others, too. The future of a robust, thriving local Jewish community depends upon it.

This article was originally published in the Jewish Journal. To view it on their website, click here.