Communal Response To Mental Health Disorders Ramping Up ‘Rapidly’


This is the third of a three-part series. Read part one and part-two here

Julia Abramson, a 16-year-old living in suburban Detroit and a loyal camper at Camp Ramah Canada, associated summertime with cookouts, color wars and canoeing with friends on the camp lake.

Then, last fall, shocking news forever altered her camp memories — a longtime friend and co-camper had committed suicide with seemingly little warning. He was 15 years old. (A tribute fund was created in his memory.)

“I felt taken aback, and helpless,” said Julia, a rising junior at a public high school in Detroit. “I had known him for so long — how could I have been there for him. How could I have helped?”

Abramson found the answer in activism. She applied to be on the Jewish Fund Teen Board of Michigan, a project of the Jewish Teen Funders Network that teaches teens about grantmaking and philanthropy. Together with 11 teen board members, Abramson helped choose mental health as the board’s operating cause.

The teen board awarded $10,000 to U-Matter, a special project that brought mental health education and suicide prevention training to local high schools.

“I still feel a deep sadness that I wasn’t able to help Ronen,” said Abramson, referring to her friend who committed suicide. “I hope we can save thousands of other lives in his memory.”

“I still feel a deep sadness that I wasn’t able to help Ronen,” said Abramson, referring to her friend who committed suicide. “I hope we can save thousands of other lives in his memory.”

Abramson’s project exemplifies initiatives taking shape across the Jewish community to address mental health, particularly among young people. While grassroots projects (profiled last week in part one of this series) speak to niche groups, communal institutions are gradually beginning to tackle the issue.

The arc of activism surrounding mental health mirrors the Jewish communal response to disability inclusion, said Ariel Handel, director of inclusion at BBYO, a leading pluralistic Jewish teen movement with 20,000 teen members. While BBYO camps and programs used to screen for physical disabilities and ailments, today’s enrollment questionnaires include detailed questions about participants’ mental health, she said.

One example: What does it look like when your child gets upset? How can we help comfort your child when he/she is upset?

“We are encouraging a more cohesive approach to dealing with well-being,” said Handel, a clinical social work by training. “Teens need a system of personalized, ongoing support.”

At the movement’s international convention — attended by over 3,000 teens annually — two social workers were added to the medical staff team.

“Mental health concerns are rapidly becoming a priority,” said Handel.

“Mental health concerns are rapidly becoming a priority.”

In fact, that hasn’t always been the case. As with other messy societal problems (childhood sexual abuse, disability and LGBTQ inclusion, infertility) the Jewish community, like other faith communities, has sometimes been slow to respond.

Rabbi Mychal Springer, director of the JTS Center for Pastoral Education and a long-time advocate for mental health awareness, said that, though the Jewish community has been “slow” to respond to this issue, clergy have always been on the frontlines.

“Clergy are the first group of people turned to by those in distress,” she said. “They [clergy] understood the depth of this problem far before the community at large.” As clinical pastoral education becomes a standard of care — Rabbi Springer founded the JTS center in 2009 — the communal conversation is finally catching up, she said.

Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah professor who primarily works with the Jewish community, compared the staggered awareness around mental health to the slow-moving communal consciousness around infertility and child sexual abuse prevention.

“One person speaks out, and it opens the door to a floodgate of voices,” she said, pointing to the some of the grassroots projects, including Uprooted (infertility) and Sacred Spaces (sexual abuse prevention), that have sprung up recently to address sensitive issues. “We are seeing a similar pattern here.”

“One person speaks out, and it opens the door to a floodgate of voices.”

Rabbi Edythe Mencher, director of the disabilities inclusion for the Union of Reform Judaism, is working to expand inclusion beyond physical disabilities to psychiatric ailments. Partnering with the Ruderman Family Foundation, URJ has produced six webinars on the topic, including “Addressing Our Teens’ Mental Health Needs” and “Challenging the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness.” The webinars are intended to help congregations address mental health issues and reduce stigma, said Mencher.

“There is no reason mental health should not be included and addressed as part of that category.”

The Jewish community can be a source of support for young adults and teens facing psychiatric conditions, said Rabbi Mencher. “Congregations are continually asking us about they can strengthen their teens,” she said. “Understanding the complexities of mental health is one place to start.”

When Pamela Schuller, program manager of a year-old mental health initiative, asked the teens she was working with to pick a name for the program, they chose “Here.Now.”

“For teens today, there is an intense focus on ‘what’s next,’” said Schuller, who has been open about her personal struggle with Tourette’s syndrome. The heightened pressures to perform well in school and get into a good college exacerbate mental health challenges, she said. “Teens want to communicate that now matters — you are important now. Many get lost talking about their future.”

“Teens want to communicate that now matters — you are important now. Many get lost talking about their future.”

Here.Now., sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York in collaboration with the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and 70 Faces Media, gives teens multiple outlets to break down the stigma surrounding mental health, including articles, social media, videos and live performances. Last November, teens gathered at a comedy club in New York City to do stand-up routines about their struggles with mental health.

Finding creative ways to talk openly about mental health among Generation Z is increasingly important, stressed Schuller: one in five teens live with a mental health condition, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Internalizing this data, the Jewish Education Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower educators to help and understand young people, launched a “mental first aid” workshop in the spring. The seminar taught educators how to look for signs of depression, suicidal behavior and anxiety, and how to respond to a teen in crisis.

“Educators are on the front lines with Jewish teens,” said Les Skolnik, director of the training workshop. “Their choices have the most dangerous consequences.” (Skolnik has since left the Jewish Education Project.)

The purpose of the workshop is to prepare Jewish educators to become “first responders,” he said. Accepting teens “as they are” is key. “Educators need to be armed and prepared to deal with the questions they’ll [teens] be asking, and the signs that could indicate a problem.”

In rabbinical schools, clergy are increasingly trained to read those signs. Today, New York’s three major rabbinical schools — Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) — all include pastoral training programs. RIETS, an Orthodox rabbinical seminary, launched a pilot pastoral training project this year, allowing rabbinical students to partner with the university’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology to practice “client-centered therapy,” an approach to pastoral care that emphasizes empathy. (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the 18-year-old Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in Riverdale, pioneered one of the earliest mandatory pastoral training programs under the guidance of psychiatrist Michelle Friedman.)

“Those in distress turn to clergy,” said Rabbi Springer of JTS. “There is an understanding that the role of a rabbi must evolve to include mental health expertise.”

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom, a mid-sized Orthodox congregation in Teaneck, N.J., has watched the conversation around mental health shift in the last decade, both as a clergy member and a survivor of depression. In 2001, Helfgot published a lengthy essay recounting his struggles with severe depression; he was one of the first to publicly confront the issue in the Orthodox community.

Drug abuse, depression, addiction, suicide — where there used to silence, there is now sound.”

Today, he speaks about mental health in synagogues, high schools and colleges. He described seeing the “stigma begin to lift.”

“Younger people are more comfortable talking openly about their lives,” he said. “That goes a long way in terms of meeting mental health challenges. I can’t say things are perfect. But I can say people are more willing to talk about hard things. Drug abuse, depression, addiction, suicide — where there used to silence, there is now sound.”

“Let’s Name This”

For Marc Fein, a 31-year-old mental health advocate and depression survivor, “rock bottom” involved turning off his phone for a week at a time. Or forgetting to eat and then working out compulsively. Or taking midday naps that lasted for hours.

“My depression manifested as shutting down,” said Fein, who met with me a few months back.

Fein is tall and lean, with a confident and slightly ironic air. At the Orthodox synagogue he attends in Washington Heights, he sometimes jokingly introduces himself as “Mr. Depression.”

Today, Fein, an educational consultant, has become an unofficial spokesperson on mental health, particularly in the Orthodox community. Though he began speaking about the issue as a way to “frame and master” his own experience, today he describes himself as an activist.

“Depression is not something you ‘get over.’ It’s a battle I will always be fighting.”

“I initially started speaking about my depression because I wanted to prove I was over it,” said the Riverdale native, named this month to the Religious National Alliance Task Force, a public-private partnership working to advance the national strategy for suicide prevention. “That’s totally false. Depression is not something you ‘get over.’ It’s a battle I will always be fighting.” Speaking has become a part of the healing process, he said. “Telling my story, especially now, gives me a sense of how far I’ve come.”

(Read Fein’s first blog post on mental health awareness here.)

Fein, the former regional director of the upstate chapter of NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth movement, today speaks to hundreds of Jewish teens and young adults about confronting mental illness. Most recently, he spoke to 75 teens at a J-Serve event in Westchester — J-Serve, in partnership with the leading pluralistic Jewish teen movement BBYO, unites teens around volunteer work and social action.

“I keep speaking about this topic because I believe it saves lives,” said Fein, who first shared his story in 2014 at a student-run event at Yeshiva University, his alma mater. The event, called Stomp Out the Stigma, is organized annually by Active Minds, an on-campus student group that aims to change the conversation around mental health.

Two hundred fifty people, most of whom were students, attended it this year, at the university’s uptown campus in April. Jordyn Kaufman, the most recent vice president of Active Minds, said Fein’s keynote speech was the event’s biggest turn out to date.

“There’s still work to be done, but I’ve seen a huge shift,” said Kaufman, who got involved with Active Minds during her first semester on campus. “When we start working as a whole to make something not taboo anymore, you can choose to jump on the train or be left behind.”

Kaufman, 22, who graduated from Stern College in May with a major in music, spoke at the event about her personal experience with PTSD after her parents separated when she was in eighth grade. “People think it’s only war veterans and people who survived tragic accidents [who experience the condition],” said the Chappaqua native, speaking to The Jewish Week on the phone. “I wanted to change that perception.”

Fein was one of the role models who helped her step forward and share her own story. “He helped me realized that you’re the same person, even if you struggle with mental illness.”

Fein’s online videos and speeches have reached over 2,000 people over the past few years, and the number is growing. He routinely fields Facebook messages and texts from young adults — and their parents — struggling to cope with mental health concerns.

“I keep speaking about this topic because I believe it saves lives.”

“I saw your post about depression, can we talk?” one Facebook message from a former NCSY-er reads. “What you described in your speech yesterday sounds a lot like my daughter — how can I have a conversation with her about depression and what she’s going through?” reads another.

“That’s when it clicked for me — this is real,” said Fein, describing his response to the onslaught of messages he received after he first spoke about his depression in 2014.

“If someone were to draw a prototypical depressed person, they wouldn’t come up with me,” said Fein, adjusting his rectangular glasses. His checkered shirt and pants were pressed neatly. He wore a small black yarmulke, a sign that might be easily missed by the unknowing eye. “I’m redefining what depression could look like. Admitting you struggle with mental health is not admitting to failure. There is an after.”

Speaking “after the after” gives hope to the person in the midst of his/her struggle, he said. “There is something beyond where you are. There is a next.”

People frequently tell Fein he “started a movement.” He finds the statement flattering, but inaccurate. “One person doesn’t start a movement. A movement starts when there is a collective consciousness about an issue, and a collective willingness to change the status quo.”

When it comes to confronting mental health, the Jewish community is there, he said.

“It’s not a movement until you name it a movement. Let’s name this.”

This story is part of a series on mental health awareness in the Jewish community sponsored by the Investigative Journalism Fund. Read part one and part-two here as well a first-person accounts from here and here.