Leave it to a psychologist and mother of four daughters to understand the dynamics and power of talk therapy. “I like to joke that I could conduct a psychology research study in my own home,” says Lilly Jacobson, Ph.D. Encouraging her daughters to become “independent young women,” she proudly enumerates that Natalie, 22, is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, working in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles; Emma, 19, is a sophomore at Northwestern University; Isabel, 16, is in the 11th grade at Cranbrook; and Mia, 14, graduated from Hillel Day School and joined her sister at Cranbrook this year.   

A therapist at heart with a Jewish soul

As Chair of Federation’s Youth Mental Health Initiative, Lilly addresses an audience at the event “How to Raise an Adult.”

A Hillel and Cranbrook grad herself, Lilly graduated from U of M with a B.A. in Comparative Literature. With a love of reading about complex characters and “diving into other people’s worlds,” she took an undergrad course in Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism. Hooked on analysis of fictional characters, she decided she preferred studying “real people” and earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Wayne State University in 2002. 

Spend an hour with Lilly and it’s clear that her family and career are in balance and her work is a labor of love, particularly when working with teenagers. “I have worked with groups, families and individuals of all ages, but I love teenagers,” she says. “I love being a part of their world, learning what they’re into, and what’s new and current. The teen years are an explosive time in human development. It’s exciting to me to see teens learning about themselves, developing their autonomy, deciding their paths in life. It’s a time of tremendous growth and opportunity.”

Beyond her community role as Chair of Federation’s Youth Mental Health Initiative, Lilly is active with Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy, Jewish Working Women Network, and Maimonides Society. Additionally, she is on Friendship Circle’s UMatter Steering Committee, and was a member of the Legacy Heritage OnBoard leadership development Detroit cohort this past year. As a Board Member of the Holocaust Memorial Center, she recently helped to develop a youth-oriented program focusing on empathy, resilience and other lessons that come out of the Holocaust.  

A resident of Bloomfield Hills, Lilly is married to Howard Jacobson, Managing Member of Jacobson Brothers, L.L.C., a real estate development company based in Birmingham. The Jacobson family are members of Congregation Beth Ahm.

Insights from a Therapist: In Conversation with Lilly Jacobson

Five traits that describe you: I surveyed my kids and they came up with Optimistic. Open-minded. Genuine. Loyal. Intellectually Curious. 

Favorite words:  Resilience. Empathy. 

On early years, education, influences and inspiration   

myJewishDetroit: Please share a little about your background

Lilly: I am a Detroiter and the daughter of survivors. My parents both lost family in the Holocaust. My mother was from Strasbourg, France, which had a rich and vibrant Jewish community. When walking a friend home on a Friday night, her father was picked up and taken to Auschwitz. Her family never heard from him again. My dad was from Romania and his father helped forge documents to get people out of the country. He first went to Israel, then left for the US and settled in Detroit, finding work as a house painter so that he could help support his family in Israel. He eventually went into the real estate business. 

My parents met at the JCC in Detroit. Both were sporty and spunky — and tremendous role models for resilience. Living through adversity, they had a great appreciation and zest for life. My mom was the definition of grit; she was an early advocate of fitness and yoga, a tennis player well into her 80s, eager to learn new things, an avid reader, and a gourmet French cook! She even kept her recipes in a database, and she loved to stay up to date on the latest technology.

As for my education, I’ll start with a plug for my experience at Hillel Day School. As a graduate and now a Hillel parent, I have come to appreciate the value of a Hillel education as providing a secure base from which a child can go on and explore the Jewish world and beyond. I have always encouraged my daughters, as they went on to high school, to try  new things, take chances, make new friends and do things they never have done before . . . not just to focus on getting into college — that rat race that so many kids are engaged in now.

I’ve been a clinical psychologist for nearly 20 years. Up until last year, I practiced at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, providing integrated care through a joint venture with the Wayne State University Psychology Department. The program trains graduate students and provides mental health services for the General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine practice in downtown Detroit. I currently have a small private practice uptown.

myJDet: How would you describe your perspective on psychology?

I truly believe in the scientist-practitioner model of clinical psychology, where research and practice are both continuously influencing each other. Theoretically and philosophically, my background is rooted in the ideas of attachment theory. During graduate school, I studied with Dr. Douglas Barnett, professor and current Director of the Psychology Clinic at WSU, doing research on the importance of the early parent-child relationship and its long-range impact on a child’s social and emotional development. At the time, my focus was on trauma among urban youth, but I have since learned that trauma crosses all socioeconomic boundaries. 

More recently, I’ve been inspired by the work of the Friendship Circle under the direction of Bassie and Rabbi Levi Shemtov and its Teen Director, Rabbi Yarden Blumstein. Their belief that every person has a unique purpose has informed my work both as a psychologist and a mental health consultant within the Jewish community. 

 In my personal experience, I am drawn to the interaction of Jewish practice and modern psychology. I find the ancient principles of Judaism fascinating and have been studying for the past several years with a group of women and our dedicated teacher, Sara Aliza Scheinberg, through Partners Detroit. I have more recently begun exploring the spiritual and ethical philosophy of Mussar with Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom, and I have also been learning with Rabbi Levi Dubov of the Bloomfield Hills Chabad; together we’re studying The Book of Tanya, a foundational work of the Chabad movement that has a surprisingly modern take on personal identity and growth. 

When I think about how much wisdom there is in some of the basic rituals of Judaism, I find those things give us a solid framework and space to live in the world. For example, when I consider the idea of mindfulness — so current now — I think about Jewish prayer. The words we know so well, almost like a mantra, have the power to evoke a state of mind that’s very much like meditation. And the principle of “family time” — that we strive so hard to maintain these days — we have that built into Shabbat dinner — a time to touch base, a time to ask questions, review the week, unplug and de-stress, if you will.   

On Jewish Detroit’s Youth Mental Health Initiative and its programming 

myJDet: For those not familiar with the Mental Health Initiative and the website “We Need to Talk” (wn2t.org), how did it start? 

Three years ago, Federation conducted a health and social welfare needs assessment of our community which revealed alarming numbers of our youth struggling with mental health issues. Those numbers reflect a nationwide crisis that the media and research support — that anxiety has become the most common mental health concern in the nation. And it’s become a growing concern among our young people. 

When we saw our own numbers in the Detroit community survey, as reported by parents and teachers, we put our heads together to take action.  We started by gathering community leaders and mental health professionals who work with youth — in our synagogues, day schools, BBYO, Jewish Family Service, Kadima and Friendship Circle — and set out to work together to connect our resources, create better access to help those in need and to plan community-wide events.   

In 2018, we launched the website, “We Need to Talk” – a platform for sharing personal stories and information to build awareness of the prevalence and warning signs of mental illness. Within the first year of the program, we secured funding for suicide prevention training for nearly 850 professionals in the community. All these efforts have proven to be effective in combating the youth mental illness crisis in our community. Still, there’s much more work to be done. 

On choosing therapy and common questions people ask

myJDet: What is mental illness and why do we shun the word illness?

I think the biggest problem with the term mental illness is the stigma associated with it. I believe, however, that we’re at the beginning of a shift in perspective. Celebrities in every field are speaking out about their personal experiences and specifically identifying their diagnosis, be it anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or autism spectrum disorder. Our kids are getting the message and starting to make the change themselves. Through social media, they are more open to connecting, talking and trying to help one another.   

myJDet: What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?

Stress can be a positive and healthy thing. In small doses, stress promotes growth. In nature, for example, stress is what it takes for a flower to bloom. I like that metaphor for school — which is designed to stress kids just enough to promote their curiosity, learning and growth. In cognitive behavior therapy, we refer to the method of stress inoculation to help patients cope with difficult situations by exposing them to milder stressors, building up immunity in a manner similar to a vaccination. The concept applies in parenting — when we allow our children to manage stress in small, progressive steps, they will learn to handle the big bumps in the road later in life. 

In general terms, stress is a response to an external cause, such as a paper due or a fight with a friend. Chronic stress can be problematic and develop into anxiety. 

Anxiety’s origin is internal. It is characterized by a “persistent feeling of apprehension or dread.” Anxiety serves its purpose as a natural alarm — a warning signal to the body, alerting us to protect ourselves against threats or some lurking danger, whether external or internal. But when that alarm breaks and goes off unpredictably or for no apparent reason, it can become a debilitating problem. 

myJDet: What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist and what is psychotherapy? 

The distinction between a psychologist and psychiatrist is a matter of training. A psychiatrist has a degree from a medical school; a psychologist has a Ph.D. or Psy.D., having completed research in a particular area of expertise and passing a stringent licensing exam.  

There are many different degrees that one can have to practice psychotherapy. A psychotherapist can be a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or a counselor. Psychotherapy refers to any kind of talk therapy. There are many forms of psychotherapy, and empirically validated therapies for particular disorders. As therapists, we have a strong foundation of science and research to identify best practices in diagnosis and evidence-based therapy for patients who walk through our doors.   

myJDet: When should a parent consider therapy for a child? 

Parents should seek help or consultation if their child is experiencing psychological symptoms that are so persistent or pervasive as to interfere with daily life or the tasks kids need to be doing — making friends, finishing schoolwork, enjoying their activities. 

It can be hard sometimes for parents to accurately read changes in a child’s behavior. There are changes that occur naturally, but when a child is not growing socially or emotionally into those changes, then perhaps it’s time to think about therapy. 

In my own experience working with kids, and in my own kids, I find that young people are more amenable to seeing a therapist than they used to be.  It’s a function of media — and the fact that there are now coaches or tutors for so many things in their lives. Seeing a therapist is like going to a trainer to work out. I use that metaphor: When someone offers you the service of a trainer to become physically stronger, you wouldn’t turn that down. Think of a therapist as someone to help you with coping skills to handle what’s going on in life.  

myJDet:  What are some of the questions to ask before choosing a therapist? 

Ask about their training, expertise or specialty and the type of therapy they use. Is their orientation to therapy cognitive behavioral or psychodynamic, short term or long term? Ask if they work with the family or just the child? Ask how progress will be assessed. Ultimately, the efficacy or outcome of therapy is about the quality of the relationship between the client and the therapist. Ask yourself how comfortable you feel with your choice. And don’t hesitate to talk to more than one therapist before choosing. I’m a big believer (and research supports the notion) that the right match between the therapist and the client is an essential component of therapy. 

On fighting the stigma of mental illness

Lilly and her family at a Teen Mental Health event featuring New York Times columnist Frank Bruni

myJDet:  In your view, how can each of us do a better job of fighting the stigma of mental illness? 

We Need to Talk — Federation’s website, wn2t.org, is a great springboard for conversation. I also think it’s important for parents to show their vulnerability to their children. Kids get the impression that parents have always been successful, that things always come easily to them. Parents can help when they talk about the struggles they’ve had, such as a bad day at work or a difficult interaction with a family member or friend.

Everyone needs help at one time or another. Opening the lines of communication — and sharing our experiences — helps normalize mental health challenges. If you or your child had a positive experience with a therapist, share that information. If your child had a heart condition and went to a great cardiologist, you’d be the first to share that fact. Why should it be any different in mentioning the name of a great therapist?  

The good news is that our schools are starting to wise up and integrate social and emotional learning into the curriculum. Through the Youth Mental Health Initiative, we piloted a Resiliency Program with Julie Fisher at Hillel Day School. At Cranbrook, they are working on a Wellness Initiative, and last month they successfully ran their first UMatter week, focused on reducing the stigma around mental health and preventing suicide.

On promoting mental fitness and resilience

myJDet:  What is your definition of resilience?  

Resilience is the ability to cope with the stressors that come your way throughout your lifetime. To build resilience, you need to cope with failures and setbacks. You need to be willing to change, adapt, explore and try new things. And try again. As parents, we can help our kids get there by challenging them and teaching them the importance of grit and perseverance. Music lessons, for example, never come easily and are a fantastic was to experience grit, learning new music, note-by-note, measure-by-measure, working to master and perform the piece. 

Ultimately, learning to succeed at any given challenge — be it music, sports, theater, or solving a complex problem — is the pathway to resilience and building self-esteem.

In psychology, we have a concept we call flow — the feeling of satisfaction when you are working your hardest to achieve something — and mastering it, working at your peak, at the “top of your game.”  Think about skiing down a run, at your peak ability, mindful of the moment and enjoying the challenge. That’s flow and there are all different opportunities out there to find it. 

myJDet:  What do you do to unwind?   

I have the fortune of a great family and a supportive group of friends. I also enjoy movies and the ever growing array of great television programs, reading for pleasure, and lots of activities: yoga, Pilates, being in nature and traveling with my husband.

Favorites

Restaurants: Soul Cafe for lunch, San Morello for dinner 

Building in the Detroit skyline: Fisher Building 

Place to take kids/ visitors: Greenfield Village, Cranbrook, DIA, Birmingham Farmers Market

 Vacation places: I love the mountains and skiing in Utah. As a family we have been fortunate to enjoy many adventures throughout the world, and we especially love Israel

Sports: Yoga, skiing, Pilates

Jewish Food: Homemade chopped liver 

Jewish Expression: Baruch Hashem (“Blessed is the Name”)

Guilty pleasures: Barbecue Potato Chips, Costco Delivery 

Watching now: Succession; Big Little Lies; and waiting for Season 3 of Shtisel to come out! 

Reading now: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin 

Words to live by: “The brain is like a muscle.” 

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