The Avodah Blog

Alumni Spotlight: Rachel Brammer-Shlay

Avodah Service Corps Alumna Rachel Brammer-Shlay Speaks About Her Work as a Psychotherapist During Mental Health Month

Rachel Brammer-Shlay is an Avodah Service Corps Alumna (NYC 2012-13). During her Avodah year, she worked with the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS)—Break Free and TAYPE high school in Brooklyn. After her Avodah year, Rachel continued her work in the mental health field and today, she is a Licensed Creative Arts Psychotherapist at one of New York’s public hospitals. In honor of May as Mental Health Month, Rachel shared her experience below.


Where and when was your Avodah placement?

I was placed at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services — Break Free, and TAYPE high school in Brooklyn during 2012 and 2013.

Can you share a bit about your role there?
While at JBFCS, I served as a Case Associate. I assisted adolescents at an alternative school and on-site drug treatment milieu connected to the adolescent outpatient mental health clinic. During that time, I developed and facilitated a weekly after school “young feminists club” for interested students, provided additional support, supervision of clients and assistance to staff as needed, co-facilitated psycho-educational and therapy groups, provided crisis intervention, accompanied clients on trips and appointments, coordinated client care with teachers and therapists, facilitated one on one and group mediation and conflict resolution, and collected and submitted drug screens and medical request forms
What did you learn about mental health that you didn’t know before your placement?

One point that my Avodah placement really drove home is that mental health services are often wrongly pegged as a luxury service. Addressing mental health issues is seen as a secondary concern when working with individuals and families experiencing poverty, when in reality, addressing mental health can often help alleviate poverty and vice versa.

What do you do now?

I am a Licensed Creative Arts Psychotherapist, specializing in Dance/Movement Psychotherapy. I work in a pediatric inpatient psychiatric unit in one of New York’s safety net hospitals (part of the NYCHH public hospital system). I provide group and individual psychotherapy with a focus in creative arts therapeutic interventions, specifically that of dance/movement therapy, as well as talk therapy.

What does dance and movement therapy involve? How does it work?

Dance and movement therapy uses the body and movement as the inroad to the psyche and utilizes dance- and movement-based interventions to connect with clients. Attuning to a client’s movement patterns is a nonverbal way to connect with clients and let them know that you see them. Working with them to modify and further develop their movement patterns can correlate with healthy changes in their emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and social patterns. Dance/movement therapy is accessible to all populations because everyone has a body and everybody experiences some range of movement—it’s the most accessible way to connect with others.

In your experience, what challenges do you see individuals face when trying to access mental health services? Can you give an example?

I think the biggest barrier to accessing mental health services is poverty; that’s why I’m so proud to work for a safety net public hospital that will serve anyone, regardless of insurance or financial status. Most of the clients I serve are victims of systemic poverty and racism and much of their mental health issues are a result of this systemic oppression — it should be the burden of the system that creates these cases rather than the burden of the individuals to remedy their mental health concerns. When mental health is privatized, it creates the false idea that therapy and other mental health services are luxuries that can only be afforded to rich (and predominantly white) folks. The demand for mental health services is also in stark contrast with the supplies. For example, many low-income folks who require mental health services are put on wait lists ranging from weeks to months to just to get an intake appointment. Can you imagine someone having a heart attack today and being like “ok, you’re all set to see us in August”? That may sound like hyperbole but it’s not. People experiencing chronic mental illness are in immediate crisis and putting these individuals in situations where their needs are not met in a timely manner could cost them their lives. I work in inpatient psych, which does address these crisis in a more immediate way, which often means that we get a lot of unnecessary admissions simply because individuals don’t have access to affordable or timely outpatient or community-based services, so they opt for inpatient care.

Would you consider access to quality health care and mental health services to be a social justice issue? How so?

Absolutely. If access to quality health care and mental health services are unavailable, then how can we expect anyone to be a productive member of society? Our bodies and our minds require constant maintenance — our current healthcare system suggests that this maintenance is more essential and therefore more readily available to some (mainly wealthy and white individuals) than to others (namely poor people of color) — this is a social justice issue.

Can you highlight the connections between health outcomes and privilege, or lack thereof?

Access to quality health care is more readily available to people with more money, which most commonly correlates with White cis-gendered and straight men, because that’s how intersectionality of oppression generally works. That’s why it’s so important that we have women, trans folks, queer folks, people of color, and people of varying socioeconomic statuses making decisions about our health care access, because these are the individuals who the system currently works against and who understand the direction the healthcare revolution needs to go.

How do you think we can help end the stigma of mental illness?

Talk about mental illness! When you’re going to therapy, say, “I’m going to therapy” and don’t hide behind some generic statement like “I have an appointment”. Therapy is health maintenance and the more we normalize therapy and other mental health services, the less shame there is around receiving and benefiting from these services. The best thing we can do to end the stigma of mental illness is not to contribute to it with our own prejudice and shame.

What is one thing you wish more people understood about mental health disorders/illness?

Mental health disorders and illnesses are so common! One in five Americans experience mental illness and we’re still so afraid to talk about it and share our stories. One in every 12 people has asthma and nobody’s whispering in shame about using their rescue inhaler or seeing the asthma specialist. Why are we so afraid to talk about an experience that is so common? I think it’s because we still have this “mind over matter” attitude when it comes to mental illness and the age-old pull yourself up by your bootstraps comes to mind. Mental illness is real, it’s common, it’s complicated, and it hurts a lot of people. We only hurt these people (and ourselves) more when we belittle their experiences and minimize their all too important mental health needs.

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