Supporting the Mental Health of our Students

Five months ago, prior to the advent of COVID-19, I was speaking to two of my colleagues about Israel education. I was in my wheelhouse — or so I thought.  

When one of them looked a little disinterested, I decided to probe. He explained, “Don’t get me wrong, Noam, Israel education is so important, but you know what the number one issue in the world is now?” “Nope, tell me”. He looked at me and said: “Mental health. So many of our students on campus are suffering.” 

I was stunned, but this should have been obvious to me. My parents are mental health professionals, and I was a high school principal. My doctorate is in educational psychology! How could I have missed this?  

OpenDor Media has internalized this message over the past several months. 

For the month of May, we at OpenDor Media are going to focus all our efforts on mental health. Why now? Two reasons:

  1. Since 1949, Mental Health Month has been observed in May in the United States.  With COVID-19 looming over us, it is a topic we all should focus on.
  2. As leaders in Jewish and Israel-focused digital content, we believe that Judaism has much to say about mental health, and we have the responsibility to contribute in this area and provide strength during this time.

Throughout this month, we will showcase our film When The Smoke Clears, which focuses on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. We will release an episode of Game Changers with the famous Tal Ben-Shahar, and we will have an explainer video on mental health. 

For today’s Weekly, we will kick off Mental Health Month with an interview I conducted with the two of the most thoughtful mental health professionals I’ve ever met, my parents. 

My father, Dr. Neil Weissman, Psy D., is an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Maryland Medical School. He is the Coordinator of the Psychosocial Recovery Center at the Veterans Administration in Baltimore, Maryland, and has a private practice specializing in couples therapy.

My mother, Pamela Rockman Weissman, LCSW-C, has been a school social worker for 25 years, serving Baltimore City’s Public Schools and, like my father, she also has a private practice. My mom is also authoring books that help parents and children. Keep your eye open for This is My Answer, slated for publication later this year.  

Enjoy this short interview. Share with guidance counselors. Share with parents. We’re all in this together. Make sure to read through until the end for a simple acronym to a complicated challenge! 

1. Why is it particularly important this year for all of us to spend more time focusing on mental health during the month of May?

(Neil) I have not looked into its origins, but I am taken by the fact that it is in the spring. Springtime is ripe with embedded optimism that the world and nature can recover from the cold dark days of winter. Spring holds forth the promise that we too can rebound from the slumber and immobility of our past, both recent and distant.

In May of 2020, we can certainly use this optimism. COVID-19 has demanded of all of us that we adapt so as to survive. We have had to endure the anxiety of an invisible medical enemy, the angst of financial stress, the anguish of loneliness and disconnection. We know too well the twin challenges of anxiety about an uncertain future and painful loss of our cherished routines, security, and — for too many — the tragic loss of loved ones. These are great demands on our emotional and psychological resources.

Yet here we are in the spring. Innate within all of us is the capacity to allow the beliefs that we can manage, the skills to do so, and the hope that better days are ahead. The resilience literature encourages us to notice what we can appreciate, to solve problems effectively, to connect with our support systems, to use humor and purposeful distraction to contend with challenges, and to find the path to optimism. So many friends and clients have shared with me that they have secretly enjoyed more time with family, the discovery of better appreciation of family members, the value of an extra hour of sleep, the savoring of a sun-filled day, the gratitude of a successfully delivered Instacart, and the grateful realization that they have the capability to manage in difficult times. Even the dark clouds of COVID-19 have silver linings.

Mental health month provides the education that with proper attention, a healing and strengthened mindset is available to those who reach for it. We need this encouragement now more than ever. 

(Pamela) I want to add that “spending time on mental health” means allowing ourselves to grieve, as well as taking care of ourselves and the ones we love with intention.

2. According to the World Health Organization, over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and it is the second-leading cause of death in 15-29 year olds. What can we do to help reduce this number? 

(Neil) To answer this, we need to begin by saying, there are always exceptions to the rule. Understanding what makes a person take his or her own life requires an appreciation of what it means to feel absolutely alone. When individuals perceive themselves as without positive connection to another person and, even worse, that their very presence is more of a burden than a blessing to others, they are at risk for choosing to end their lives. A person who suffers with these beliefs also feels that the future holds no promise and that they have no value. Our best remedy as a community is to identify who may be feeling alone and to reach out again and again. We must convey to every member of our society that no one is left behind and that everyone counts. Family members, community organizations, such as faith communities, schools, even the workplace must be aware of who may be alienated and marginalized and should offer a hand. These connections can be as simple as a weekly phone call or may require more comprehensive attention. Suicide is a symptom of depression, which can be effectively treated by a qualified mental health professional.

(Pamela) I also want to talk about “authenticity” and probably not in the way you imagine. To highlight this in a school setting: While conducting conflict resolution settings (when meeting with two students together that are in a fight of sorts or on bad terms with each other) in an effort to help them reach a state of understanding, I first listen. And then I hear something like: “I’m just being honest with her.” Or “My mom said you have to tell the truth and, oh well, sometimes the truth hurts.” 

The real truth is that sometimes the truth kills. There is authenticity for you. If we really want to be honest, we need to be careful and tactful with our words and we need to teach tact. So I teach them about genuine acceptance in their bodies and minds, expressed verbally and non verbally.  What is tact? Here is my acronym. 

TACT -Talking with Acceptance and with Consideration Toward others. This is our shot at preventing the depressive symptoms that may lead to someone telling themselves: “I am not loved” or “My life is worthless.”  “I may as well end it.” 

To see before my very eyes these very points “click” with students, parents or clients is like watching the ultimate “ah-ha!” moment.  What we say m a t t e r s because everyone matters. 

So, of course this is related to bullying which is directly correlated to suicidal ideation. It is so important to encourage the bullied to find a supportive “Secondary Bystander.” For example, in my practice one of the hardest things for clients is when one parent does not condemn the other, abusive parent. That non abusive parent should be a supportive secondary bystander.  A non-supportive secondary bystander becomes an accomplice essentially to the crime and the disappointment that the child feels can not be properly estimated. The emotional anguish is insurmountable for the child. In schools when a student is taunted in class, oftentimes the teacher only becomes aware of and tunes in to the issue by the time the taunted student has either retaliated or the teacher is completely unaware of what happened because the bully engaged very smoothly.

3. What is an idea in Jewish wisdom and the Jewish tradition that can help us think about mental health?

(Pamela) The structure of our day. In many ways Judaism can be a mental health guide. It asks of us to begin the day with gratitude: Active gratitude has an impact on the circuits of the brain, which influences our thoughts, leading to our felt-sense and inner feelings, which leads to our words, body language, and intra and interpersonal actions. The day ends with the mindfulness of the “Shma,” which is our way of beseeching God to protect us during the unknowingness and mystery of the night. When we feel some sense of security, we have the belief that we can forge ahead and that we are not alone.

The community: Judaism asks that we look out for each other through “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh La Zeh,” “All Jewish people are responsible/guarantors for the other.”

This is a way of having each other’s backs. When we have each other’s backs, we are instilling in the next person a sense of security. With a sense of security, we are able to move forward with confidence. Whether those that support us are physically near us or not, we know that they are cheering us on, encouraging us, and through our successes they are vicariously thrilled. This interpersonal approach in Judaism is seen at all of our life cycle events: we share in each other’s happinesses with intention and enthusiasm, and we share in each other’s sorrow with sincerity and deeds.

(Neil) Our literature. Our foundational narrative, the Torah, teaches us about the  fundamental truth of man and mankind: while we are imperfect beings, we have nearly endless potential. From the beginning, we hear of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs as they struggle with the vicissitudes of life and yet demand of themselves to pursue truth, justice, and kindness. The repeated theme undergirding the Torah is the core need and belief in a secure attachment to God, family, and community. The Tehillim (Psalms), the great compendium of spiritual poetry, encourage man to face fear with faith, depression with optimism, and loneliness with connection. The Talmud demands of the reader cognitive acumen, flexibility, and patient persistence to discover the intellectually honest solution to whatever the presenting dilemma may be. The Chassidic masters raise the importance of celebration of love, joy, authenticity, and community.

Jewish surviving and thriving is the result of commitment, connection, the pursuit of meaning, the ordering of our everyday lives, intellectual integrity, curiosity and flexibility, learning to balance the needs and value of the individual and the community, recognizing our imperfections, and believing in the value of each soul to transcend any challenge — and of course the promise of second chances.

This brief snapshot of the Jewish experience is a veritable toolbox of mental health attitudes and skills. 

4. Teachers often play a much bigger role in their students’ lives than merely “teaching content.” In fact, I think teachers play a particularly critical role in the development of emotional well being of their students. What advice do you have to these teachers who are not necessarily trained in the field of mental health but have an unofficial role of mental health provider?

(Pamela) Educators are on the “front lines,” with the best seat in the house. What do they see? They sometimes see the pangs of anguish that come naturally with growing up, they see the deviations from the norm when children wear their sadness. They see covered up feelings when kids act tough but deep down are hurting. And, interestingly, so many incorrect diagnoses, like ADHD actually stem from lack of sleep, or from distractions about other, personal challenges: parental fighting, sense of being different, financial burdens, health concerns. 

I think that Jewish educators really have to acknowledge that some of our Jewish history and Zionist history, while it is replete with remarkable parts, it is also filled with trauma. When we learn our history as a nation and in our own families, we realize this trauma is up close and personal and can be a lot for our students to absorb. We see this in the second and third generation from Shoah survivors, but it is also true for many others.  It is not just a foreign, sad story that happened a long time ago. So we need to have students engage in didactics, but we have to realize that whatever we are teaching has an emotional impact on the eyes gazing in our directions. In contrast, we can also imbue and internalize transgenerational pride, which all educators must impart, choosing not to just bring doom and gloom of our history to the surface. (Plug for Unpacked!) Find that balance and always instill hope because even in the worst of times, there has been some source of light to cling to.

5. What is the Jewish community getting right about mental health, and what are we getting wrong? How can we do better? 

(Neil) The Jewish community is not a monolithic entity. It is more like a mosaic bound by a frame of belonging. Some facets of the community have long been attentive to the mental health needs of its constituents. Often, Jewish day schools, as with other private schools, have embedded guidance counselors and increased sensitivities by teachers to the social-emotional needs of the students. Rabbis in synagogues, who have long provided pastoral care are becoming more educated regarding the scope of their capabilities and, as such, have a “rolodex” of clinicians to whom they refer when necessary. The Orthodox communities, although newer to this process, have clinics in their communities that service mental health needs. Indeed “Nefesh” is an Orthodox coalition of mental health professionals and rabbis whose mission is to collaborate around mental health concerns. Still, we need to ask ourselves “what are the barriers to care?” Stigma, the lack of awareness, or perhaps even ignorance still interfere with access to care. It is the role of the community thought leaders in our religious, educational, and community institutions who need to make clear that mental illness or psychological emotional distress are not moral deficiencies or worthy of shame, but rather are common and warrant the same respect and consideration as any other malady or problem. Perhaps sermons addressing mental health topics can serve to bring them out from the shadows. Ad space for organizations and mental health services should be regularly provided free of charge in print and online media. Community funding to assist in subsiding mental health treatment can help to address the financial barriers. While we as a faith community have much to be proud of regarding valuing mental health matters, there is too much hidden suffering which can still be addressed. We are still a work in progress.

6. We often hear about “Self-care” as a strategy to cope with mental health issues. Now, during COVID-19, this becomes really challenging. What are some practical suggestions you have for educators and their students?

(Neil) Acronyms are helpful to jiggle our brains to recall important information. So let’s make CARE into acronym:

The  C.A.R.E  Package

  • C
    1. Communicate your needs and concerns to someone who will listen.
    2. Create a list of go-to comfort activities that are safe and helpful, e.g., a warm shower, music, take a walk, etc.
  • A
    Anxiety management techniques
    1. Accept and acknowledge your anxieties: it’s ok to be human and to feel anxious.
    2. Use behavioral techniques such as slow breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness exercises, and grounding techniques.
    3. Catch it/check it/change it: when anxious, notice your thoughts, make sure you are not telling yourself the scariest thoughts. Keep your thoughts fair, accurate, and reasonable.
    4. Distraction: no need to stay glued to the news. Do other activities to take your mind off the stresses of the day. Watch a funny TV show, do a puzzle, or practice a new hobby.
  • R
    1. Create a daily routine: structure your day. Wake up at the same time, plan your day’s activities, change clothing, eat breakfast, have a morning and afternoon activity, exercise at the same time daily, eat dinner, end the day with a calm activity, close out the day with a gratitude list, and go to sleep at the same time.
    2. “Reframe”– instead of thinking only of the difficulties, see how this period can help you progress in your growth as a  person. 
  • E
    1. Exercise daily. It’s always good to care about our physical health, and even more so now.
    2. Express yourself. Do you like to draw, sing, or dance? Find your healthy way to express what is happening for you emotionally.

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