Assisting people with mental illness has become Devi Knapp’s main goal after her own bouts of depression over nearly 30 years. That’s why she has co-founded Baken (In the Nest), a mental health collective that has support from Congregation Or Hadash and Rabbi Analia Bortz.
After discovering a mental health first-aid class on Facebook, Knapp thought of her own teaching career the past 18 years and the limited training and discussions on mental health.
Knapp regularly blogs about her anxiety and depression, but she realizes that some of her readers won’t know what’s going on with the people near them.
“I receive support because I’m out there, but there are also people who may not receive the same exposure due to their inability to speak up,” she said.
Determined to make a difference, Knapp approached Rabbi Bortz, who is a physician, to create four events between January and May this year. As part of a bat mitzvah project and for the organization’s first event, Knapp’s daughter, Sophie, hosted a bake sale with the Depressed Cake Shop, which raises awareness about mental health issues.
The pastries, decorated with sad faces and broken hearts, raised over $2,800 for the Georgia Parent Support Network, which helps children and families with financial needs.
In March, Knapp hosted a separate event for families with children who have mental health issues, inviting 30 attendees and a panel of professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists.
“People began talking and felt they were speaking with members of the Jewish community vs. going to the hospital or an office building,” she said.
An event in May for adults with mental health issues drew increased participation and questions about the next event.
By mid-May, Rabbi Bortz and Knapp decided to invite Jewish health professionals to help plan the next step. “We wanted to support people without providing them treatment because at the end of the day we did not wish to be a treatment center,” Knapp said, “but help connect individuals to have a better understanding of their mental health and where they can find assistance.”
As a result, the next event, “Wrapping Your Arms Around Mental Illness,” is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 13, at Congregation Or Hadash. Mental health professionals will speak with individuals and present 45-minute sessions on various topics, including grief, eating disorders and suicide.
“There is a stigma and mystery in the Jewish community of the unknown regarding mental health, and we have a responsibility to make the disease transparent to everyone to generate support,” Rabbi Bortz said. “By continuing the mitzvah project within the community, we can hear, listen and potentially save lives while building a nest.”
Despite numerous faith based resources available to the community, Knapp is striving to include Jewish clergy people feel comfortable speaking with.
“The community is great at assisting individuals with physical disabilities but somewhat limited when addressing mental ailments and helping families who may have someone suffering from an illness,” Knapp said. “Rabbi Bortz knows what she is talking about and is sensitive to the subject. I don’t know if others have had the same training.”
As the organization grows, Knapp hopes to arrange monthly speakers on pertinent topics and possibly start a book club and a movie night to generate discussions about mental health. Baken also intends to hold a symposium in the spring to train rabbis on mental health and has heard from MACoM and Hadassah about collaborations.
“People often expect individuals suffering from mental health issues to quickly get better or receive medication, which are common stigmas,” Knapp said. “However, I hope that those suffering from mental illness seek help and realize there is nothing to be ashamed of and that this is a normal part of life.”
What: “Wrapping Your Arms Around Mental Illness”
Who: Ten-plus professionals leading 45-minute breakout sessions
Where: Congregation Or Hadash, 7460 Trowbridge Road, Sandy Springs
When: 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13
Cost: Free; RSVP at www.baken-atlanta.org/events