Tuesday, June 17, 2014

No Longer Alone- What Schools Can do to Better Support Students who Suffer from Mental Illness

As a teacher, I frequently heard students say that their grade was one big family where everybody was included. I think the boys and girls who said that, really meant it. Still, in almost all cases, they were mistaken. On the side, at best ignored, were some kids who just weren't cool enough to be part of the group. It was those who worried me the most. Of course, there were others about whom I was concerned, students who, despite their many wonderful traits and talents, never seemed to truly fit in.

Last week I heard of another suicide of a young adult. I didn't know him, but the news hit me hard. It awakened old wounds, as I thought of two former students, whose lives ended too soon, at their own hands. While it is impossible to reach every student who feels alone, thinks of himself as a malcontent, and/or has mental health issues, it seems to me that more can be done by schools to address this issue.

One thing that must be done is mental-health awareness. As in general society, mental illness is still very much stigmatized for teens, particularly for boys. Whether it's calling other kids “retards” or simply making fun of any perceived difference, there is an atmosphere that makes it very uncomfortable to acknowledge mental illness, or even ask for help. This stigma also causes families to not ask for help, help which would be forthcoming, if there was a child with any other illness.

Nearly 13 years ago, Rabbi Nati Helfgot wrote a very powerful article about dealing with severe depression. He shared his personal experience and how he was treated in a way that helped him get through it. Schools need to figure out how they can assist, or at least support, a student who is dealing with mental illness. Just as a girl who would have a disease like cancer would be supported by both the school and her classmates, the same should be done if she misses school for a reason connected to mental illness, assuming of course that the girl is interested. I have seen some schools that do this well, but it needs to become the norm.

While it would not be possible or advisable to ask for adults within the school community to discuss challenges they themselves have gone through in dealing with this, an alternative would be to show that great leaders both Jewish (Rambam and the Kotzker rebbe come readily to mind) and non-Jewish (Lincoln and Churchill) have dealt with mental illness without it destroying their lives.

Of course, I know nothing about why this young man killed himself last week, but it would be positive if his suicide could serve as a wake-up call to Jewish institutions such as schools and camps. We owe it to our youth to try harder and better.


  1. Replies
    1. You are not "no one". You are a person. Thanks for the message.

  2. I remember that article by R. Helfgott. I remember thinking to myself, "Well, why SHOULDN'T Roshei Yeshiva get clinically depressed? Why should they be exempt?" When I became severely depressed after the birth of my next baby, it was very helpful in coming to terms with my own depression and not feeling like a fraud as a Jewish teacher/role model simply because I had this disease.
    I don't know what the answer is, but I did decide at one point to "come out of the closet," as part of efforts to continue to destigmatize depression and mental illness, and also hopefully be a source of hope for those who suffer. Things were so, so bad for me (and my family), but with a lot of work, good therapy, meds, and learning coping skills, things are fine now. I still have to be on top of it. Maybe if people who successfully "beat" or cope with depression spoke at the schools, that would give chizuk and education.
    Rachel Hershberg