FOX POINT — A Jewish nonprofit designed to help individuals with special needs and their families, Friendship Circle of Wisconsin has always had a focus on mental health.
When the pandemic hit Wisconsin early in 2020, throwing into isolation the dozens of the families that have come rely on the services provided by Friendship Circle — a division of Chabad Lubavitch of Wisconsin — Executive Director Rabbi Levi Stein knew the nonprofit needed to do more.
That impetus has led to the development of UMatter, a new mission at Friendship Circle aimed at teaching teens and adults how to help their peers who are struggling with mental health issues. The mission has resulted in no less than six programs: A grief support group, a support group for moms, teen support groups, a Teen Mental Health Committee, case management for people with struggling mental illness and self-care, and suicide prevention training.
The nonprofit is partnering with Jewish Family Services on the case management and grief support programs, and CTeen, another Chabad Lubavitch group in Milwaukee, on the programming for teens.
The idea for UMatter began to crystalize for Stein when he took a trip to Arkansas to become certified to offer a four-hour suicide prevention training.
“When the pandemic hit, the mental health element of our mission really, really became front and center, because people who already struggle with isolation were now being told that they need to isolate. For someone who already has that struggle, to have to isolate even more, could really bring them to a tipping point of suicide,” Stein said. “We had had a few people within our own membership that attempted suicide during this time, and it became clear that we not only needed to do more to address (mental health) in general — as we had been doing — but we needed to address it as a crisis.”
When Stein got back to Friendship Circle and started providing the trainings, he soon learned that those trainings — giving volunteers and others the skills to notice and address potential suicidal behaviors in others — were having “life-changing outcomes.”
“People asked their coworkers if they had thoughts of suicide and they said ‘yes,’” or they would learn a friend was having suicidal thoughts, and know what to say, Stein said. “The more I did it, the more I realized how important mental health is right now and how we need to be there for one other.”
That initial focus on suicide prevention soon led to the formation of UMatter and its other programs or connections with other organizations, aimed at helping people with mental health needs in the long term
The support groups grew out of the loss people have experienced due to COVID-19, either a loss of loved one because of the virus or the loss of freedom or social interactions. While Jewish Family Services is helping with the grief support groups, offering counselor-led group meetings at the Friendship Circle in Fox Point on Wednesday evenings, Friendship Circle’s Chief Operating Officer Leah Stein is leading the Moms Support Group.
“So many moms with kids with special needs have been struggling. They were struggling before COVID, but now it’s worse because they all have immune compromised kids,” said Levi Stein. “It is catered to moms with kids with special needs, but any overwhelmed mom, which is basically every mom, is welcome to participate in that.”
The case management element came up, Levi Stein said, as a way of helping those struggling with mental health to get better access to the help they need, so they don’t end up in a crisis. As part of the program, two JFC social workers hold office hours at Friendship Circle from 10 a.m. to 1p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays.
“A lot of people struggling with mental health don’t have their stuff to figured out, and they just need someone to go over what resources they have, etc.,” Levi Stein said, mentioning a Friendship Circle member who was complaining he was hungry only to find out he had a Food Stamp card in his wallet with a few thousand dollars on it.
Teen Support Group
The most recent outgrowth of the UMatter mission has been Friendship Circle’s Partnership with CTeen, and its leader Rabbi Avremi Shapiro, that is focusing on making sure all teens struggling with mental health issues get the support they need.
A major focus of the teen programming, said Iman, a Nicolet High School senior interning at Friendship Circle, is teens providing teens a safe space to discuss their mental health struggles.
“It’s a real problem in our community — the stigmatism on mental health—and we are trying to get the word out there that there is someone you can talk to,” Iman said recently. “I love that this is something that is giving people an outlet, so they can just come somewhere and talk about whatever they need to get out of their chest.”