Jill Sadowsky receives Ministry of Health’s Shield 2010 for her work with the mentally ill
Yesterday, as we stepped into the Knesset building, I felt excited to actually be there for the first time after living in Israel for more than 40 years. But the reason for my excitement was even bigger – my friend, Jill Sadowsky, was to receive a Shield of Honor from the Minister of Health at this special ceremony. The award is given to outstanding volunteers in the medical field. Jill received her Shield in appreciation of the outstanding voluntary work she has done to help families of the mentally ill.
The only sad thing was that her beloved husband, Alec, is no longer with us so see Jill get what she so deserved.. They endured their difficult times together, and he supported her and worked effortlessly to help his son and others in a similar situation.
Jill does not waste her time wallowing in self-pity, but turns her personal suffering into positive actions helping the society around her. Her main effort for more than 30 years has been to help parents and families who have a mentally disabled child or family member. When her son, Doron, became ill with schizophrenia, Jill was shocked by the aloofness of most of the psychiatric staff to the families. She was struck by the lack of understanding and respect shown to the afflicted people and their families. Since 1984 Jill has worked under the umbrella of ENOSH, The Israeli Mental Health Association, and alone, to try to change the attitude to mental illness and the mentally disabled. She tried to help them and their families’ daily encounters with the illness.
In the beginning, Jill and Alec struggled on their own dealing with this new and difficult life situation. They first heard about ENOSH from a mother whose child was in the same psychiatric hospital as Doron. She told them that ENOSH was starting a support group for families. At the meeting, Jill spoke about her son and his illness; as she spoke, other parents identified with her, chipped in, and shared their own experiences. She began learning from them how to live with and try to manage the situation. For the first time since Doron had become so ill, Jill felt she had found a family. “They knew what I was feeling and I knew what they were feeling.”
As time went by, she noticed that some of the English speakers in the group did not fully understand what was being said, and they couldn’t express their feelings in Hebrew about such a painful and sensitive subject. Jill realized how important it was to set up an English-speaking support group for families of the mentally disabled. On a voluntary basis, under the auspices of ENOSH, Jill and a friend started the group.
“The purpose of the support group was to give parents of mentally ill children the means to cope with the situation and its specific behaviors. We shared our experiences about living with someone who is mentally ill because it affects every aspect of a family’s life.”
The group met in Ramat Hasharon. English speakers from all over the country came, and Jill and Alec were the only family from Ramat Hasharon. Unfortunately the others were afraid someone would see them, thereby acknowledging publicly that there was mental illness in their family.
Jill ran the group until Doron died. He was medication- resistant and, sadly, 16 years after suffering from his illness, he committed suicide. At this point Jill wanted someone else to take over the support group, but when no-one volunteered to do the job, they stopped the group. Jill has continued, however, to help the numerous people who have turned to her for support.
In 1998, a few years after Doron’s death, Jill published the book “Weep for Them” in Hebrew. Using a pseudonym and fictitious names in the story, the book told the story of Doron and his family, giving an honest look at the human aspect of treatment, hospitalization and attitudes to the mentally disabled and their families. When a new psychiatric home was opened for Holocaust survivors who were mentally ill, the Ministry of Health distributed the book to as many psychiatric professionals as possible.
“Fortunately, today there is a new awareness in the mental health system. The situation has changed dramatically for the better. Families receive better support, there are now sheltered residences in the community for the ill, and doctors handle parents in a kinder, more humane way.”
One of the more difficult situations the families have to deal with is when the mentally disabled person has a violent outburst. Sometimes the only thing the family can do is to call in the police. Often the police have no idea how to deal with the situation, as they have not been trained to work with such cases.
Continuing to fulfill the promise she made to Doron that she would try to help improve the position of the mentally disabled, Jill began working on her Police Project. The objective was to develop a program that trains policemen to recognize mental illness, giving them the tools to deal appropriately with situations involving the mentally ill. To her surprise, she discovered that in the city of Memphis in the United States there was a program exactly like the one she had envisaged. It is called the C.I.T. (Crisis Intervention Training). Jill was invited to give a presentation in Memphis at their National Conference in 2007, to show how far she had gone with the police training course in Israel. She is still in contact with many of the police officers there who are always willing to help out when she runs into difficulties.
Jill and her colleague, Malka, launched the Police Project in Israel. Together with a social worker from ENOSH, they have presented their program at Police Headquarters in Tel Aviv and at other police gatherings. But this is not enough. Their aim is to get their program into the police academy school where officers are trained.
I asked Jill what her dream is for the mentally disabled and their families. Idealist that she is, Jill hopes for and believes that new, effective medication for the mentally disabled will be developed so that no one will need to live through what Doron, she and her family had to. She wishes that one day mental illness won’t be such a serious illness as it is today. Until then, Jill will continue helping parents and families, and fight against the stigma suffered by mentally disabled people and those with other disabilities.