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Monday, April 06, 2020

(Courtesy of Saint Mary’s General Hospital) “Our community, like most frum communities, has been in denial about substance abuse and addiction, or if we do find one of our family members is having issues we go for treatment far away from home,” said George Matyjewicz, PhD, consultant at St. Mary’s General Hospital. “If it’s our children, they need help now before it gets too far out of hand! And if you are suffering from addiction, you will not know how it affects your family until you quit—as one man said when his youngest daughter sent him a thank you note every year for the past 20 years, on the anniversary of his being sober!

Community members who have seen families struggling with the effects of substance abuse sought to raise awareness and reduce stigma. Denial is the biggest obstacle to obtaining help. Over 300 members of the Orthodox Jewish community of Passaic-Clifton attended its first awareness event on addictions, where they heard an outstanding panel of presenters. Harav Elya Brudny, the rosh yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn, began the evening with a frank discussion about the existence of addictive disorders in the Orthodox community and the importance of communal acceptance of those who are suffering. Rav Brudny was clear about the array of addictive disorders that have come across his desk—drugs and alcohol, addiction to opioids that began as pain treatments, gambling, sexual addiction and even extreme eating disorders.

His presentation was followed by an educational overview by Lewis Abrams, a veteran clinician and community educator in the field of addictions. The audience next heard a personal story about Yossi’s challenges and triumphs as a recovering addict. Then Yitz, a TABC senior who started a non-profit organization, Empty Glass Society, to support and educate high school students about alcohol abuse, spoke. This important event was a critical step in bringing awareness and education about addiction to our community.

A lively Q&A with the audience members focused on how to speak to children about drinking when it is such a vital part of Jewish ritual and steps synagogues can take to ensure that they are following the law. The overwhelming takeaway from the evening was the importance of having an open dialogue with one’s children—parents and educators alike need not be afraid to address these issues and the importance of asking for help. A video recording of this event can be found at https://vimeo.com/387377240.

“At St. Mary’s General Hospital, we have an Outpatient Behavioral Health Services (BHS) unit that provides a wide range of programs and facilities enabling clients (children, adolescents and adults) of mental health services to function productively and independently,” said Matyjewicz. “The primary goal is to help clients reach and maintain their highest level of function psychologically, socially, vocationally and economically. And now we are expanding to a 24-bed inpatient BHS unit.”

“I also spoke with Debbie Akerman, PhD, LCSW, CASAP, a licensed clinical social worker with years of experience in addiction/recovery, trauma, and marriage and family work. She had defended her dissertation, ‘Build It and They Will Come,’ which focused on the lack of outpatient addiction treatment facilities in the Orthodox Jewish community. As she stated, there are portions of her dissertation that deal with the specifics of the community vis-à-vis mental illness and addiction, and that she was happy to lend her services if needed. We arranged a meeting with our BHS team,” he continued.

“As a clinician and PhD in social work, good-quality programming is always something that I am seeking,” said Akerman. “I had the privilege and honor to meet with Mr. Ed Condit, the CEO of St. Mary’s General Hospital and the behavioral health team. Adding to the richness of our community, St. Mary’s boasts many programs that provide a variety of services to those afflicted with mental health and their families. Some of the programs include the POWER (Program for Outpatient Wellness, Enrichment and Recovery) program, which includes two to three groups per day with case managers. There is a program under the direction of Alex Brown where clients with severe mental illness that has led to a negative legal consequence stay for up to a year to rehabilitate into the community. The outpatient clinic under the direction of Naftali Wallfish services over 600 clients. This unit also encompasses an injection clinic for individuals that need medication injection and monitoring.”

“It is empirically known that when it comes to the rates of mental disease, the Orthodox Jewish community is not immune. Our rates of mental illness mimic those of the general public. Unfortunately, it is also empirically known that the stigma and shame that surrounds mental illness in our community precludes many individuals from seeking treatment. This results in the patient and their family suffering in silence and very much alone,” he added.

“The services that St. Mary’s provides range from mild to severe symptoms, from simple case management and medication needs to complex psycho-social issues, rehabilitation and integration into the community,” continued Akerman. “The staff at the behavioral health system operate in a cohesive multi-disciplinary way with psychiatrists, nurses, case managers and clinicians committed to achieving the best in mental health for the clients. St. Mary’s is very eager to provide services that are culturally appropriate for our community and has assured us that they will do their utmost both in educating staff and implementing programming that will be culturally sensitive.”

Superb help is in our communities. Let us all join together with empathy, education and empowerment, to bring treatment and solace to clients, family and community.

For more information about St. Mary’s General Hospital, please email George Matyjewicz at [email protected].