/ April 16, 2021

Mental Health Services in Family Justice Centers (FJCs): When she speaks, everyone listens

Lisa Lerner often leads the way at the Manhattan Family Justice Center (FJC), which helps survivors of domestic and gender-based violence find their way to safety and healing.

An experienced psychotherapist, Ms. Lerner and her colleague, Dr. Gloria Ellis, brought an integrated psychotherapy and psychiatry mental health treatment model to the Manhattan FJC for the first time. She then trained social service and legal staff in simple ways to support clients who may have mental health challenges.

Lisa also created a support group for the Manhattan FJC’s legal counselors, to help them cope with a phenomenon called vicarious trauma. This occurs when frontline client-facing staff are profoundly affected by the trauma in their clients’ lives. Staff say the group helped bring a cohesive nature to their work environment.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Ms. Lerner once again pioneered a new approach, spearheading the Manhattan FJC’s effort to provide remote support for survivors of violence.

At first, the FJC team was unsure that an online support group would work—it was daunting to manage a sensitive topic online, especially since it can be difficult to gauge emotions when you can’t see group members in person to fully appreciate their body language.

“There are a lot of hurdles to providing healthcare remotely, and you have to be thoughtful and creative,” said Dr. Obianuju Berry, incoming Medical Director of the NYC Gender-Based Violence Mental Health Collaboration at NYC Health + Hospitals/NYU. “But Lisa led the way in taking on this new medium.”

Thanks to Ms. Lerner’s work, the group went off without a hitch. Survivors enthusiastically participated and were able to open up, and the Manhattan FJC continues to hold the sessions online.  And the staff continue to look to Ms. Lerner as a leader.

“She’s soft-spoken, but when she speaks everyone really listens,” said Dr. Elizabeth Murphy Fitelson, Director of the Women’s Program in Psychiatry at Columbia University, which has been collaborating on this project since 2013. “All of us admire her a great deal.”

From Ms. Lerner:
“Being the descendant of survivors of persecution, I find that my work with survivors of intimate partner violence helps keep me connected to my own ancestors’ resilience. I feel privileged to bear witness to my clients’ experiences, and humbled to play a part towards their healing journey.”

Community mental health program: Mental Health Services in Family Justice Centers (FJCs)

To bring mental health support to survivors of intimate partner violence, ThriveNYC partners with the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence and NYC Health + Hospitals to add dedicated mental health teams to Family Justice Centers (FJCs). These new mental health teams include a full-time therapist, a part-time psychiatrist, and a full-time program administrator who provide direct on-site clinical services and complement the trauma-informed, comprehensive services available in each of the City’s five FJCs. Over 1,060 clients have been served by this program since the program launched in 2016, many of whom attended multiple clinical sessions. Learn more about the program and its impact here.