Among the many things that Gail Schulman is proud of since becoming CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) more than two years ago is the launch of “Mental Health Connect” in February 2021. The helpline offers important resources via a single phone call. “We saw an enormous need for mental health support, and, in fact, the biggest question people have is where to even start and what kind of support might be helpful,” Schulman said in a recent interview with JewishBoston.
A caller speaks to a clinical social worker who will guide and direct them to the appropriate help. It’s challenging yet rewarding work; the social worker on call never knows ahead of time what problem she will have to address. “The call can be from someone who hasn’t left their house for six months and is anxious. It can be a parent whose child is engaging in self-harm behavior. It can be someone who has noticed their next-door neighbor has been hoarding, and they’re worried about that person’s safety,” she explained.
Schulman said taking that first step for help begins with recognizing that “no one can do it alone. At JF&CS, we’re very plugged into the [mental health] ecosystem. We want to make sure that people who contact JF&CS can connect to that entire ecosystem without conducting confusing Google searches on their own. That ecosystem includes many JF&CS services to improve mental health in the Jewish community and beyond.”
“One obvious solution,” Schulman added, “is the medical model—finding a therapist or psychiatrist. And while a medical solution is extremely valuable, many other approaches can also be very effective for people. For example, there is a specialized group around eating disorders, life coaching and help with housing. If someone is experiencing a mental health challenge because of a problem, we will help that person address the situation, which will help with the mental health challenge.”
Schulman’s first connection to JF&CS was as a client at the Center for Early Relationship Support. The center focuses on issues common to parents, newborns, young children and adoption resources. Twenty years ago, Schulman had given birth to premature twins, and a visiting volunteer mother helped her during those early and exhausting days. “I would not have called my visits mental health work, but they ensured I started my life with those tiny babies in a place of well-being for them and me,” she said.
The visiting mothers’ program has been duplicated in Israel, Ukraine and other locations worldwide. Schulman noted that the international mental health community has recognized the center’s mission to help mothers and children as groundbreaking work. “That’s the earliest part of the lifespan,” she said. “At the other end of the lifespan, we work with older adults and their families. Whether it’s thinking about ourselves or our parents, we are here to address the complexities of aging.”
Schulman said that JF&CS clients are at various stages along a continuum of life, starting with young children through senior citizens. “We have a range of services to address specific life needs,” she added. “That is where our clinical case management comes in for people who have mental or emotional challenges. We often will meet once a week or more to help them manage issues in their lives.”
To that end, Schulman said there are myriad support groups and resources under the JF&CS umbrella, including suicide prevention, bereavement groups and services for older adults. They also serve people with persistent mental illness, parents in recovery and newborns exposed to opiates. She cites Journey to Safety as one of her agency’s signature programs. “The program reaches out to people not feeling safe with their partners and assists them in navigating whether or when to leave an abusive relationship and where to go next,” she said. “We try to think holistically about what a person is experiencing and then help them with life elements, including the mental health components.”
Schulman noted that JF&CS’s work can also be immersive. For example, the agency runs and staffs 24-hour residencies for clients with developmental disabilities. “It was never an option to close our doors during the pandemic because vital living was happening on the other side of them,” she stated. Another signature JF&CS program, Family Table, kept families fed and extended financial stability to those struggling to put food on the table. Maintaining the program throughout the pandemic demonstrated how important it was to support clients’ basic needs.
Schulman, responsible for 300 employees, came to the job after working as a CEO and COO for large software companies. It was exhausting work that had her on a plane three out of four weeks each month. However, when her children became b’nei mitzvot, she recalls intense conversations with them about what it meant to be a Jewish adult and finding their places in the world. Those talks deeply touched Schulman, making her ponder that her hard work had to be toward something more meaningful. Her epiphany led her to take a job as the COO at Gann Academy, which changed her life. “I felt so fortunate to be using the skills that I’d cultivated for decades in a place where I felt I was making a difference in the world,” she said. “It was a happy transition.”
When Schulman learned of the JF&CS CEO position, she knew it was an opportunity to build on the tikkun olam work she began at Gann. She started her job as CEO seven weeks before the pandemic. Soon, she was at the helm of an agency whose work became even more vital. “This is the work JF&CS has been doing for over 150 years before anybody identified there was a mental health crisis and that the Jewish community should care,” she said. “We have been caring for the Jewish community and other communities for over a century.”