graphic shows a chalkboard with mental health terms written on it: OCD, ADHA, addiction, etc.
(Graphic/Flickr user amenclinicsphotos ac)

Addressing kids’ mental health is our Jewish obligation

When someone in our community has a broken leg or is diagnosed with cancer, the email chains begin, the casserole brigades get fired up and we bring food, help, care and support.

But for those who suffer from mental illness — a disease not visible to the naked eye — individuals and their families are often reluctant or ashamed to reach out for the support they so desperately need.

The stigma and shame around mental illness coincide with the dramatic increase in the rate of suicide and depression, particularly among youth and teens.

One in five people under 18 have a diagnosable mental health issue, according to experts such as Dr. Steven Adelsheim, director of the Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing in Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Mental health is the primary health-related issue affecting those ages 10 to 30.

In addition, half of all mental health conditions have onset by age 14 and 75 percent start by age 24. And yet 79 percent do not access care.

In Judaism, we recognize that pain can be both physical and emotional. We need look no further than the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing that we recite on Shabbat — we pray for healing of spirit, the soul, in addition to the body. And we pray as a community, for those around us as well as ourselves.

Mental health is not just a personal issue. The stigma around it, the need for more education and better access to resources and the need to make our Jewish community and other faith communities safe and supportive places for those who are suffering make it a social justice issue.

At Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, through an initiative called Panim-el-Panim (which translates from Hebrew as “the inner spirit” as well as “face to face”), we are embracing this issue. We intend to face mental illness, creating understanding and support for the inner spirit of teens and young adults battling this disease.

We realize that this issue affects not only our Jewish community but also other faith organizations, and that the broader our reach, the more powerful our effect.

To that end, on Jan. 22 we hosted an event titled “Multifaith Day of Learning: Teen and Young Adult Mental Health.”

We reached out to adults and youth, clergy and lay leaders, government officials and school district personnel to join us in learning about mental health and to discuss what we as faith communities can do to address it. Nearly 200 adults and youth from around the Bay Area showed up on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Attendees represented a wide array of communities: Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Mormon, Lutheran and Unitarian Universalist.

Speakers included Dr. Adelsheim; San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine; the Rev. William S. Kruse, co-chair of the Spirituality Initiative (San Mateo County Health Systems); Jeneé Littrell, director of Safe and Supportive Schools (San Mateo County Office of Education); Mary McGrath, manager of Mental Health Services (San Mateo Union High School District); two young women from our congregation who have experienced mental health issues; and our own Rabbi Dan Feder and Rabbi Lisa Delson.

Dr. Adelsheim gave a broad picture, citing statistics around youth mental health, the need to reduce stigma and the need for coordinated support. Supervisor Pine spoke about county investments in mental health resources and treatment.

Rev. Kruse, Ms. Littrell and Ms. McGrath all spoke about how faith institutions can provide a protective factor for those with mental health issues, and how schools, families and faith institutions all need to come together. When students feel a tight sense of community within their faith institution, these speakers said, they are more likely to reach out when they’re in need.

Standing ovations followed the brave remarks of two young women who spoke openly about their battles with depression. Each told how their faith and their faith community provided a sense of comfort and support in dealing with their issues.

Participants broke into smaller discussion groups to share how their faith institutions were addressing this issue, and to brainstorm next steps. Many raised their hands and volunteered to be a part of continuing efforts to address this issue.

Rabbi Feder closed the day by noting that this is a difficult topic. It’s elusive and complicated, and we’d like to think that if we have the right resources we can heal those in need. But it’s a race against time.

If synagogues join together with other faith institutions and community organizations, we may not get to the perfect solution but through our efforts we can help. Check our website and stay tuned.

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Lisa Rosenthal

Lisa Rosenthal is a freelance writer and a member of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, where she serves on the Panim-el-Panim steering committee.