Setting Its Sights on Mental Wellness, SIMHA Ushers In a New Era in Sephardic Community

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“Our community has the resources needed to support people facing mental health challenges and to give them the help they need. The time has come for us to address this issue as a community.”   Mark Adjmi, President of SIMHA

 Sandy Yeller 

Responding to the increasing need for high quality mental health care, the Sephardic Initiative for Mental Health Awareness, also known as SIMHA, will be opening its doors in March to provide the Sephardic community with a wide range of services and programming. 

Like any other demographic, our community is not immune to the ongoing mental health crisis that has been significantly exacerbated by COVID.  Anxiety, depression, OCD, eating and bipolar disorders, addiction, and other issues have been on the rise everywhere, their prevalence far outpacing existing resources.  Rabbis, teachers, mentors, kallah teachers, and others in the Sephardic community often brought their concerns to Rabbi David Sutton, who understood that these sensitive matters needed to be better addressed by those on the front lines, most of whom had little, if any, training in the mental health arena.  Hoping to become part of the solution to the alarming trend, Rabbi Sutton began participating in a clinical pastoral education program at Harvard Medical School’s McClean Hospital, training under Dr. David H. Rosmarin, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of Center for Anxiety.   

“It was clear that something had to be done to provide those needing help with access to the most professional people in the field,” said Rabbi Sutton. 

Education and Awareness  

Collaborating closely with rabbis and community leaders, Rabbi Sutton, Mark Adjmi, and Nathan Hoffman co-founded SIMHA, a boutique organization with a goal of providing a full continuum of care and specialized attention to those struggling with problems large and small. SIMHA’s focus on education and awareness will also help identify problems in their early stages and eradicate stigmas that prevent people from seeking much-needed help.   

Dr. David Katzenstein will be serving as SIMHA’s chief clinical officer. The former director of clinical care at Premium Health Center, Dr. Katzenstein also served as the clinical supervisor at Maimonides Medical Center’s Child and Adolescent Department of Psychology, and his writings, research, and presentations have made him a well-known figure in the global mental health community.   

“When people become educated and aware, they need a place to turn when issues arise and SIMHA is here to be the address for anyone dealing with a mental health issue, providing a robust help line, assessments, referrals, and full coordination of care,” explained Dr. Katzenstein.   

SIMHA will be partnering with Relief Resources, a mental health referral service that has made over 120,000 referrals to date, and will be tapping into its extensive referral system to provide clients with access to more than 8,000 clinicians that best suit their needs.  SIMHA will also be working with multiple community organizations including Hatzalah, OHEL, Sephardic Bikur Holim, and The Safe Foundation. 

SIMHA’s trained clinical coordinators will draw on their years of expertise as licensed mental health professionals to identify patient needs and the best course of treatment for each one.  In addition to providing multi-faceted client care and supplementary support to their family members, SIMHA will also be focusing on spreading a greater understanding of mental health issues through a variety of educational initiatives.  It has already hosted three different lecture series for community rabbis and teachers featuring experts in the field, with Dr. Akiva Perlman  

and Rabbi Dr. Zev Brown addressing the topics of anxiety and OCD.  Also underway are professional development days in all community schools, a mental health curriculum for students, and special classes for parents. 

Mental health issues are sometimes swept under the rug because people don’t know where to go for services and are afraid of being stigmatized, noted Mr. Adjmi, SIMHA’s president. 

“Our community has the resources needed to support people facing mental health challenges and to give them the help they need,” said Mr. Adjmi. “The time has come for us to address this issue as a community.”  

Focus on Youth 

Adding an extra dimension to SIMHA’s services will be a network of trained certified peer specialists, who have faced their own mental health issues and will be available to speak about their own growth and share experiences.

“Listening without judging is extremely important,” noted board member Isaac Tawil.

The Wayz Foundation will become SIMHA’s youth division.  Working with high school and posthigh school students provides a unique opportunity to detect issues when they are smaller and more solvable, while also normalizing the concept of mental health care, explained  

the Wayz Foundation founder and SIMHA board member Jobe Cabasso. 

Treasurer Nathan Hoffman sees SIMHA as an end-to-end solution that will have a powerful impact in the Sephardic community. 

“As Rabbi Sutton and I began speaking about SIMHA, we kept hearing from more and more people who approached us seeking help in regard to mental health issues,” observed Mr. Hoffman.  “Just over those few weeks of our discussions, it became pretty evident that the community had a significant void, one that SIMHA is being created to fill.”