In a community originally reluctant to address mental illness, Laurie Kramer’s mission has been to educate and lessen stigma
Kramer (pictured at right with Conference Volunteer Coordinator Nancy Gordon), founder of the annual Mental Health Education Conference, will step down from the Conference Coordinator role this fall after 18 years
The annual Mental Health Education Conference (MHEC) sponsored by the Twin Cities Jewish community has become a marquee event each fall – about 500 people attend each year and dozens of presenters hold breakout sessions on topics covering mental health issues affecting youth to people in the later stages of life.
It’s become such a key event, it’s easy to forget the genesis for the entire thing occurred during a brief moment at a memorial service for Barbara Schneider, a Minneapolis woman active in the Twin Cities Jewish community who struggled with severe mental illness. Schneider was killed on June 12, 2000, when she was shot by police during a confrontation in a mental health crisis call.
Schneider was a cancer survivor, and during the memorial service at Temple Israel, Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman recounted how Barbara had talked about what a “positive experience” being a cancer patient was – people visited her, sent her flowers, etc. – compared to living with mental illness.
The phrase “positive experience” touched a nerve for Laurie Kramer, who was in attendance. Even though she had never met Schneider, Kramer decided to attend the memorial service because Schneider had Bipolar disorder – the same disease that Kramer’s mother had – and she wanted to pay her respects.
“I knew exactly what she meant – that mental illness was so stigmatized,” Kramer said. “I knew something had to be done.” That “something” ended up being the creation of the Mental Health Education Conference.
Prior to her work for the Conference, Kramer worked at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center for 14 years, finishing as an associate director. She had decided on a career change – wanting to do something related to mental health education – shortly before Barbara Schneider’s death. “I didn’t think my work would be in the Jewish community because the subject was so taboo,” said Kramer.
However, after Schneider’s death, she approached Jerry Waldman, JFCS Chief Executive Officer at the time, about creating a conference in the Twin Cities Jewish community designed to raise awareness of mental health issues. He asked her to organize the event, and she agreed.
She formed a steering committee and signed on 31 agencies, synagogues, schools and organizations from the Jewish community – both Minneapolis and St. Paul – plus four mental health groups to co-sponsor the first conference. Despite all this work, she was still worried that no one would show up because they would afraid of being seen attending a mental health conference. “We thought it would be the 10 of us,” she said, referring to the steering committee.
In a guest column for The American Jewish World from this time, Kramer wrote, “Jewish people here in the Twin Cities talk very little or not at all about mental health problems in their own family. Compared to people of other faiths, Jewish families in my experience keep all sorts of problems hush-hush. We much prefer to talk about the good things in our lives – our children, our professional achievements, our homes, our travels.”
Fortunately, Kramer’s fears of a well-planned, yet sparsely attended conference were not realized. Kathy Cronkite – daughter of Walter Cronkite – was the keynote speaker that year, and hundreds of people attended the event. It’s only grown since then – of the approximately 500 people who attend the event each year, Kramer said about half report that it’s their first time.
This year marks the 18th (chai) anniversary of the conference, and Kramer has decided to make it her last one serving as Conference Coordinator. Chai in Hebrew means both the number 18 and the word life. “It’s the chai year – I wanted to go out on a chai note,” she smiled. “I turned 70 this year and I thought it would be a good year to turn over the reins.”
She still plans to serve as a volunteer for future conferences. Looking back, she is proud that the event has made a lot of progress towards educating both the Jewish and broader community about mental illness, but added that the work is far from finished. “There’s been a lessening of the stigma over the years, but we still have a long way to go,” Kramer said. “No family truly escapes mental illness. It might not be in their immediate circle, but it’s not far.”
The 18th annual Mental Health Education Conference, “Hope, Humor and Healing – Finding Light in Dark Places,” will be held 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, at Temple Israel (2323 Fremont Ave. S., Minneapolis). The event, which is free and open to people of all faiths and spiritualities, will feature a keynote address from John Moe, host of the podcast “The Hilarious World of Depression.” In addition to the keynote address, the conference will offer two breakout sessions of workshops with 28 topics to choose from, covering mental health issues affecting youth to people in the later stages of life. Click here for more information.
The new Conference Coordinator for the Mental Health Education Conference is Sharon Goldetsky – firstname.lastname@example.org or 952-417-2149.