The Jewish Chronicle
Now the Covid mental health crisis hits young Orthodox women
THE NUMBER of Orthodox young women and girls seeking mental health support has doubled over the pandemic, according to the UK Jewish charity Noa.
In an interview with the JC, the chief executive of the organisation — which specialises in care for girls in the Orthodox community aged 12 to 24 — said the demand for its mental health services had doubled over the past 12 months.
Chief Executive Naomi Lerer added that 50 per cent of its service users were children under the age of 16. She described the need for mental health services in the community as “huge”.
As a result of the surge in demand, Noa has increased its female-only staff roster by more than 20 per cent over the past year, from 28 to 34 employees.
She added that there has been a “huge rise” in eating disorders over the pandemic, saying: “There are girls who find watching themselves on a screen all the time on Zoom – [which is] really destructive.”
The charity is now supporting 180 service users across north-west London and Stamford Hill, with an additional 58 people on its waiting list.
Mrs Lerer, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, said: “Some of the girls we previously helped have come back to us; the girls we are supporting are struggling and we are still getting new referrals every day.
“We want to help every single Jew
ish girl that needs us, who is really struggling and who has barriers in accessing support. I never anticipated the need would be so great, but it just gets greater.
“We work with every girl for three years on average, but sometimes it can take longer or less. We want people to have a long-lasting recovery.”
Mrs Lerer, the rebbetzin of the Central Synagogue, said Orthodox Jewish girls could find it harder to access mental health support.
“Sometimes it can take longer to get help in the Orthodox community,” she said. “There is no difference in the need for mental health services, but there can be barriers to accessing support.”
She added: “There is still stigma. Like in any community, when it comes to mental health, there is a fear of being judged and how it reflects on the rest of the family.
“It is so vital that we recognise that mental health can affect anyone and that everyone has access to support.”
For some of the more Orthodox service users over the pandemic, the charity has provided portable WiFi and “kosher friendly screens” that have received rabbinical approval, as well as white-noise machines and headphones to give people privacy in their homes.
With its education programme, the charity is working with co-educational Jewish schools across the capital. It also works with the five Orthodox girls-only schools in north-west London, as well as four girls’ schools in Stamford Hill.
Mrs Lerer called on primary schools to also recognise the importance of mental health.
“Every primary school should have a therapist,” said Mrs Lerer, who added that young children are on Noa’swaiting list so they can receive support when they turn 12 years old.
“There is a lot of catching up to do, all the headteachersof Jewish schools are saying it. It could save lives.”
The charity offers a wide range of services, from consultations to drama, art and equine therapy. It also offers people practical support, including help accessing NHS services, job and housing applications.
Manchester-born Mrs Lerer, who set up Noa in 2009, said an additional £500,000 was needed to support the 58 young women and girls on the waiting list.
As a result, Noa, which has received funding from Comic Relief and BBC Children in Need, will host a virtual fundraising campaign from 18-19 April, whereby donors will match the amount raised by the community.
“No girl should have to sit on a waiting list,” Mrs Lerer added. “A girl can be ready for help and by the time we get to her, she might not want it; or they can be low-risk when they call us and high-risk by the time we are able to support them.”
There has been a huge rise in eating disorders over the pandemic’