Group offers support for mentally ill


Mental illness doesn’t go away simply because attention is directed elsewhere. That message can be hard to drive home but it hasn’t stopped one small group of dedicated St. Louisans from making the attempt.

“What we’re trying to say is that during a crisis people can be supportive but what happens with all these long-term issues?” asked Marsha Koski. “This has been a 30-year issue. People need support over the long haul, not just during times of immediate crisis. What we’re trying to do is get those resources out to people so they know where to go.”

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Now, there’s a new vehicle for doing just that. Koski is a board member of Jewish Attention to Mental Illness (JAMI), a new program that aims to build permanent support structures for those in the Jewish community who suffer from psychological issues.

The effort is an outgrowth of Congregation Neve Shalom, where Rabbi James Stone Goodman saw a need due to a lack of groups dedicated to helping those battling mental problems. WINGS, an initiative by Jewish Family and Children’s Service, had focused on such issues but the program shut down some time ago.

“It started because we saw a big space in the community,” Goodman said. “Mental health no longer had a place in the center of the community and I felt there were certain things we could take on to return it to the agenda, so I decided to do what I could do to contribute to that.”

That contribution is focused on two monthly groups. One was a retooled version of Achraiyut, a local support group for sufferers of mental illness, which now meets at the synagogue on the first Monday of each month. The second component was a group to help loved ones or those caring for victims of psychological disorders. Billed as the “spiritual family support group,” it meets on the third Tuesday of every month at the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur.

The family group is based on the success Goodman has seen with his Shalvah program, which assists those dealing with substance abuse issues. Started in 1998, Shalvah combines spiritual and psychological elements to combat addiction. In a very real sense, that model is an appropriate one for the group. Goodman said that some participants attend both Shalvah and Achraiyut. Koski agreed.

“It’s all connected,” she said. “So many people who have addiction issues are covering up mental illness issues and vice versa.”

Goodman also does periodic community forums at Neve Shalom to raise awareness. A large half-day symposium is even planned for late May.

Liz Singer of JF &CS said that she is glad that Neve Shalom has helped to fill the void left by the departure of WINGS. Singer has attended many of the group’s planning meetings and says it is doing important work in the community.

Singer is program coordinator of the year-and-a-half-old Jewish Connection, the successor initiative to WINGS. However, unlike WINGS, Singer’s program is aimed more broadly, often tackling issues from abuse to addiction to problems in “at risk” families. Singer said that while the two programs are not related, they do dovetail nicely.

“Jewish Connection is more focused on community education and less on support for individuals with mental illness,” she said. “JAMI helps the individuals and we educate the people around them.”

Koski said that one of the next steps in JAMI’s evolution will be working to find regular transportation to meetings, something that can be an issue for those with mental illness.

Whether that will require an infusion of money remains to be seen but Koski said funding generally hasn’t been a big issue.

“We’re doing this grassroots,” she said. “There’s been a little bit of money available to put some ads in the Jewish Light but other than that everyone who is working is doing so as a volunteer.”

From its inception as a series of conversations just after the High Holidays, through an open forum to determine community needs to research on what other communities have done to support mental illness, JAMI’s focus has continued to be on the future.

“Our guideline is that we operate as a series of ‘nexts,'” Goodman said. “We won’t take on anything that we can’t reasonably complete. It’s a bottom up project.”

That strategy has paid off. Koski said that awareness of the group seems to be growing. About eight or nine regular participants are coming each to Achraiyut and the family support group. Goodman said he expects that growth to continue.

“Everything has been very successful so far,” he said. “Our philosophy has really worked for us. Everyone feels a sense of accomplishment in the fact that we are taking on things that we can really accomplish.”

Koski said that the most important thing is to get the word out. That presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

“We’re looking for people to come out of the woodwork and say, ‘This thing that I’m dealing with is nothing to feel shameful about. I just want help,'” she said. “Because once you become a part of a group you know you are no longer alone.”

For more information about JAMI, call Congregation Neve Shalom at 314-863-4366 or visit