By Fiona Leckerman

Laurie - Photo by Yakir Zur

Laurie – Photo by Yakir Zur

What is immediately apparent when speaking to Laurie Rackind, chief executive of Jami, is how approachable and friendly he is. There are no corporate slogans slung in as he discusses his hopes and experiences of working for Jami; in fact, as he speaks, it is abundantly clear not only how important Jami is as an organisation but how fortunate Jami is to have Laurie at its helm.

First introduced to Jami as a volunteer in 1995, Laurie saw first-hand what the organisation offered and realised quite quickly how little he knew about mental health.

“Back then, mental health was very much a ‘Cinderella cause’ and the community was as ignorant and prejudiced as I was” says Laurie, who became the chief executive in 2006, after selling his engineering company.

“I used to describe Jami as an ‘institutionalised Jewish mother – wrapping everyone in cotton wool and serving chicken soup’. But it wasn’t just Jami. At that time, mental health services were very much about safety. The main provisions were day centres and the concept of recovery was hardly considered,” explains Laurie. “Over time, improvements and perceptions are beginning to shift,” he continues.

“With 25 percent of the population experiencing mental health issues, sweeping the issue under the proverbial carpet just isn’t an option. Mental health affects us all and we need to get to the point where there is no distinction between mental and physical health. Only then will we have truly combated the stigma which still prevails and, unfortunately, precludes many people from seeking help.”

Jami has had a profound impact on Laurie. “Every time I hear the personal testimony of someone’s lived experience and how Jami colleagues have helped them on their journey, I’m inspired,” he explains. “I am privileged to frequently hear such accounts.”

How to improve the journey of those with mental illness is an integral factor in the organisation. Laurie points out the ways in which Jami will continue to help those in need in the future. They will seek to further recruit trained peer support workers across all the Jami services.

“Peer support workers use their own lived experience of mental health problems to support others. It is these colleagues who inspire hope and belief by demonstrating that recovery is possible,” he says.

Laurie expresses plans to further develop Jami’s social enterprises, “not only to provide employment, volunteering and training opportunities, but also to generate income and so make Jami’s services more sustainable”.

This should have a knock-on effect

that will hopefully help lower the stigma through accessing services. Laurie tells of how Jami hopes to also develop its own retail space in the form of coffee shops, which will make it easier to find out about mental health and make contact with Jami.

There is still a long way to go before mental health is recognised in the same way physical health issues are. Laurie acknowledges this and accepts that it is one of Jami’s aims to push forward awareness. He says: “There has certainly been a positive change of opinion in the wider community, but the Jewish community is probably behind the curve. Jami’s recent campaign #JamiThinkAhead will hopefully help to address this. There is also a generational divide. Thankfully, younger people are far more likely to talk about their mental health, but among older generations, it is still often a taboo.”

Helping those with mental health problems seems simple, but Laurie explains: “Helping people to identify what they are looking to achieve and monitoring progress towards these goals ensures that we are focused on achieving something meaningful. The key tenets of accommodation, occupation and social relationships need to be considered holistically, not in isolation.”

But Laurie impresses that there are significant challenges ahead for Jami, not just to eradicate the stigma of mental health, but also that there is a substantial struggle to generate appropriate funding to help those in need. He says: “Despite all political parties professing their commitment to mental health, funding is being systematically reduced in almost all mental health service areas. Jami currently spends more than £2 million per annum delivering vital services to some of the most vulnerable members of our community and approximately 98 percent of this comes from voluntary donations.

“Sadly, demand is such that we really need to expand our services, but the reality is that this growth will have to be funded by the community.”