(image from bastamanography)
Purim 2020, which took place in early March, brought with it added significance. For some, it represented the last time they gathered in a Jewish setting in person, outside the home. For others, it was the first “live” service to be canceled as a result of SARS-CoV-2. In the days that ensued, lives changed as the perils of the coronavirus became apparent. School, work and religious services all moved online; personal contact with friends and family became exceedingly limited; travel, for most people, ceased.
Among the societal issues compounded by the pandemic have been increased isolation, drug dependence, and food and job insecurity. Underlying these problems has been COVID-19’s effect on mental health, including within the local Jewish community. As a result, numerous groups have stepped up their efforts to help the most vulnerable, and all those who have been impacted by the pandemic. During the past weeks, as the first anniversary of COVID-19 came and went, the Jewish Independent spoke with several people at the forefront of handling the Greater Vancouver Jewish community’s response.
At Jewish Family Services (jfsvancouver.ca), efforts to tackle mental health issues have widened, as more people have been seeking the agency’s support. Early on, JFS opened a crisis line that runs seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (604-588-5719 or [email protected], with the promise to respond within 24 hours).
“People are struggling, without a concrete end to the restrictions, and so demand for emotional support and learning different coping skills has surged. Our crisis line is always there for people who need immediate help and, for many community members, this is the easy way to connect with a counselor. If someone wants to remain anonymous, that is absolutely an option, we do not require a caller to identify themselves,” JFS chief executive officer Tanja Demajo told the Independent.
From its launch at the start of the pandemic to August 2020, the JFS Community Crisis Line received 955 calls, serving 494 individuals. Case workers spent 2,052 hours on the line. Additionally, 166 individuals accessed free programs offered by the JFS mental health and wellness team via telehealth and video conference – a 40% increase compared to pre-COVID times.
“Many are struggling with the added role of being a caregiver in the pandemic context, as well as dealing with their own emotions, so our workshops and support groups provide a community where people are able to vent, talk and support one another. We also connect people with friendly callers. These services have been a lifeline for many of our clients,” Demajo said.
A report released by the JFS client advisory committee last summer highlighted many ongoing concerns. One alarming quote from a client cited in the report reads, “COVID-19 has been depressing and frightening for me. My anxiety has been through the roof and I’ve had an increased number of panic attacks and migraines. My chronic health conditions have increased in severity and I have new ones. My nightmares and terrors have also increased.”
Prior to the pandemic, some JFS clients were already battling with mental health issues, often severe, which have been aggravated by the need to now cope with unaccustomed fears and anxieties. Some people, according to JFS, have refused to go outside, whether it be to the grocery store or outside for a walk. This problem is often felt by seniors, who, like everyone, need exercise and who confront serious health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Many housebound JFS clients depended on family and friends visiting for social and emotional connection before COVID hit and have been feeling deeply alone since the pandemic began. Irritability and anger are rising. Senior clients who were used to spending significant time with their grandchildren are missing them desperately. “I miss hugging my grandchildren,” is a common refrain.
Since mid-May of last year, there have been weekly depression and anxiety support group meetings with JFS’s mental health outreach therapist, Kevin Campbell. Run on Zoom, the 90-minute sessions teach coping skills and allow a safe place to talk and share. The group focuses on cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness techniques. JFS also has an active seniors caregivers support group led by Lily Shalev.
Not all COVID-19 developments in connection to mental health are grim, JFS notes. Due to technological developments, some of those experiencing isolation are able to access telehealth, work from home, get home deliveries and view a variety of educational and cultural offerings online, including many synagogue activities.
Jewish Addiction Community Services Vancouver (jacsvancouver.com), an organization that helps community members navigate the troubles of various substance abuse issues, has held one-on-one meetings on Zoom ever since COVID started.
“Clients seem to like this kind of individual counseling better, as it allows for greater intimacy, even though it is on Zoom,” said Shelley Karrel, manager of counseling and community education at JACS. “What people liked most about the group meeting was the getting together physically.”
To help those who would prefer to meet in person, Karrel has arranged for one-on-one socially distant coffee meetings. “What JACS has done is to make ourselves more available to someone when they want to talk, and to be able to schedule a meeting fairly quickly. As a registered clinical counselor, I am able to offer clients tools and exercises for managing their symptoms and for exploring the root causes when the issues of anxiety and depression are evident. Some of my clients are finding AA meetings helpful online. And, like with our clients, some are not using that medium for the same reason – it’s not personal enough.”
For ongoing support, JACS has a monthly email that lists many resources for people, if they want to reach out for specific help. JACS is also beginning a new program, Sustaining Recovery, that offers additional support in the form of a structured plan to help someone develop goals and be able to keep track of their progress. This plan, JACS finds, is very useful in creating accountability and support.
Inclusion services at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver (jccgv.com/inclusion) continues to provide a number of targeted social and recreational programs intended to engage, educate and provide meaningful lifelong learning opportunities, as well as engage individuals with diverse needs. The programs are rooted in Jewish values and the principles of social connection, community building and belonging.
“Social isolation is a prevalent issue for individuals with diverse abilities [and] this reality was exacerbated by the COVID-19 shutdown,” explained Leamore Cohen, coordinator of inclusion services. “These communities have been particularly impacted by the loneliness, uncertainty and economic hardships caused by the global pandemic, leaving these individuals at higher risk for numerous health challenges. The work we do in the inclusion services department creates the needed awareness of the individuals we support. But, now more than ever, community members are looking to us for routine and engagement at a time when they are most vulnerable.”
As people have settled into life with COVID-19, “these individuals continue to be shut in and vulnerable to mental health challenges,” she added. “In response, we offer a hybrid of virtual and in-person programming throughout the week that is both accessible and safe. In-person programs adhere to best COVID practices, and our virtual offerings allow for those who are unable to attend in person to access programming and community virtually.”
The Bagel Social Club, for example, met weekly in pre-COVID times as a means to increase avenues for integration, self-reliance and wellness. The program has shifted to weekly social clubs over Zoom and a weekly Relax and Just Breathe class, which includes gentle stretching, breathing exercises and visualizations.
As the lockdown took effect last year, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (jewishvancouver.com) began convening multiple stakeholder groups to determine the pandemic’s impact on many aspects of Jewish communal life. A common thread during these discussions involved concerns about the impacts of increased social isolation on seniors, families and youth. Federation also hosted several webinars on mental health for community members, related to the impacts of COVID-19.
“Through this work, we were able to identify a number of key initiatives that we could support both financially and organizationally,” said Shelley Rivkin, vice-president of global and local engagement at Federation. “These include over $170,000 in emergency funds to Jewish Family Services, part of which was used to support the emergency care line; funds for Jewish Seniors Alliance to expand their peer support program; and the organization of several webinars with community psychologists directed toward young adults, families and teens.
“The Jewish Community Foundation, Federation’s endowment program, has also supported a number of projects to enable community agencies to undertake mental health initiatives,” she added. “Support for mental health issues for both agency employees and leaders was also identified as a priority for the community recovery task force when they launched their first grant round. It will continue to be highlighted as we move into the next grant round.”
Last December, youth workers voiced concern about the mental well-being of youth and young adults. Consequently, Federation hosted a roundtable with key leaders to ascertain how community members in this age range are faring, especially when faced with so many disappointments and cancellations over the past year. Based on these conversations and others, Federation will be collaborating with these agencies to develop a community mental health strategy for children and youth.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.