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Judaic and mental health education in context

Educators have important opportunities to help their students, simply by virtue of the sheer number of hours that kids spend at school
Illustrative. Unhappy schoolgirl, sitting in the park. (iStock)
Illustrative. Unhappy schoolgirl, sitting in the park. (iStock)

Recently, while distractedly watching the “Today Show” one morning, a segment appeared about US public elementary schools offering mental health education to their young students.  It seems that many states in the US have mandated this at public elementary schools, with an increasing number considering it. These are programs geared toward teaching students resilience, focusing on bullying, peer-pressure, and healthy relationships. Programs for older students also teach about mental health/mental illness, and about advocating for self and others.

Why this new addition of mental health education? Perhaps the answer can be found in CDC (Center for Disease Control) data, which reports that in the US about 6 million children between the ages of 3 and 17 suffer from depression and/or anxiety, with suicide now the second leading cause of death in 15 – 24 year olds. Mandating these programs may be a response to the fact that currently in the US it appears we are living in a time of increased stress for children and the impact has become obvious. This type of education can be inferred to be a reaction to this terribly sad data and cultural context.

With this in mind, I ask myself whether we in the Jewish community, blessed with excellent yeshivot, are doing the best we can to help our young students, as they too are living in this same cultural context. Certainly, there are psychologists, advisory programs in middle school to address non-academic issues, and learning centers for children who have learning issues so that this is not an added stress for students. But, are these efforts enough in the context of today’s environment? Are the well-meaning school programs or staff in existence today ending up being simply reactive bandaids? Are they enough to empower our young students, to help them build resilience? Given the alarming prevalence of anxiety and depression beginning in early childhood, should the ‘shoring up’ start at younger ages in lower grades, even in early childhood programs?

Even beyond providing mental health education as the secular institutions are, do our yeshiva Judaic studies programs maximize the offering of a strong spiritual foundation that takes into account the psychological and emotional needs of children living in the current environment? Is this spiritual grounding helping children develop skills to best help themselves? Perhaps in today’s world the goals of Judaic studies programs should include a new goal – that of assisting students to develop emotional connections with our history and traditions in a way to help fortify their ability to react to the stresses that are contributing to sometimes serious mental illness. Could this even be done, and how can it be done in the best way possible? For example, can birchot hashachar be taught as an exercise in mindfulness and gratitude? Can our avot and imahot be understood with all their humanity, emotional and circumstantial challenges and struggles; what can be brought forward from those understandings of their lives that can build resilience to help face current times? Are there sugyot in the Mishnah and Talmud that can be taught which speak to the complexity and benefits of emunah and inspiration?

I cannot answer these questions myself as I am not a scholar, educator, or mental health professional. I don’t have the skills necessary to structure programs in either mental health education nor in Judaic studies; but from my personal vantage point, the yeshivot have a real opportunity, if not responsibility, to help provide support and vital tools to children and to teach about mental health from a young age. The sheer hours that children spend at school surely presents an outstanding opportunity and environment in which to help students. And, because students are devoting half of their school day to Judaic studies, it is critical that Jewish ideas and values be part of this education. I believe that educators and heads of schools first need to believe that they can have enormous impact on their students’ lives. Then they can summon the will to make a change. Perhaps experts need to be called upon to assist in this process.

Some of our local yeshiva high schools have instituted several programs to try to help students deal with emotional issues. An example of one such program is one that my husband and I helped inspire at Yeshivat Frisch in Paramus, NJ, called “Jonathan’s Fellowship” (after my son, Jonathan Roth, A”H, who took his own life). The program is simple in concept. YU/Stern students with mental illness issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, anorexia, and others volunteer to speak with small groups of Yeshivat Frisch high school students about their own experiences. From presentations of several college students I noted that almost every story began at elementary school age. I concluded that while high school efforts are both outstanding and necessary, these testimonies point us in the direction of starting programs earlier.

In addition, from my contact with parents who have reached out to me, I can reveal a horrible fact – I have heard from parents of 7 and 8 year olds who have either attempted suicide or have experienced suicidal ideation or self-harm. Logic compels me to believe that there must be more children who are struggling than those whose parents have reached out to me. Is it not, therefore, critically important that we should try to figure out all ways in which we can help our children at younger ages?

In the “Today Show” segment mentioned above, the superintendent of the school was interviewed. When asked what he would say to states or educators that don’t require mental health education in schools he replied: “I would ask them: What is a priority in your schools? Because if working on having kids understand what mental health is isn’t your first priority, before all the academics, I just don’t understand it….This is not putting something else on the plate; this IS the plate of education. You know, that has to be done first.” What a brilliant comment! I am confident that our heads of school on the yeshiva elementary school level can and will demonstrate similar brilliance. They will understand that it’s critical for our current times; that it’s a matter of context.

About the Author
Ruth Tepler Roth received her MS from the Columbia University School of Social Work and an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business. She has previously worked in the field of marketing and sales in the healthcare industry as VP of Marketing/Sales at an insurance company specializing in mental health/substance abuse services, and more recently as director of admissions/PR at a private yeshiva elementary school. She is a wife, and a mother of three children - two daughters, and a son, who took his own life. As one would expect, this cataclysmic event in her life caused a major shift in her awareness and thinking about mental illness and she devotes much of her time and energy to help destigmatize mental illness, and to be supportive of people who struggle with their own mental illness, and parents and siblings of those who suffer from a mental illness. She writes on topics related to mental illness awareness in daily life. It is more than a worthy cause; it is part of what heals her.
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