Kids’ Mental Health Can’t be an Afterthought – Especially Not Now

By Carrie Bornstein

For months, teachers, parents, and administrators have been considering every element of the school day in preparation for reopening. The details are dizzying. Where will everyone sit on the school bus? Can we still use the water fountains? Who needs an iPad at home? How will our kids learn effectively? With this grueling work, in an extraordinarily high-stakes environment that none of us has experience managing, there are no easy answers, and no right answers, either.

But one question feels alarmingly absent.

What are we doing to support the mental health of our kids?

Indeed, mental health is a topic that holds tremendous stigma – especially in the Jewish community. I saw this numerous times over the past year when I told people I had a child in the hospital for mental health-related reasons, and they responded with silence. At first I was stunned by the lack of response. (Maybe they actually hadn’t heard what I’d just said? “Hello out there – my kid is in the hospital! Would you be silent if I told you they just went in for cancer treatment?”) But then it happened again. And again. Eventually I got used to it and realized that although people mean well, they simply don’t know how to react, so they don’t.

Silence from individuals isn’t great, of course, but when the community we needed more than ever before couldn’t be there for us either, well, that’s when it really started to sting. Indeed, over the past fourteen months, each of our three children have been turned away a total of four times from multiple Jewish educational institutions that lacked the skills, training, or empathy to support our children’s mental health needs.

My husband and I were each raised as active members of the Jewish community. We studied abroad in Jerusalem twice, returned to assume leadership positions, and have worked on behalf of the Jewish people our entire careers. Raising our children to be Jewishly knowledgeable and actively involved in the community was always a given. It never occurred to us that the door wouldn’t be open for them to participate. Given the Jewish community’s intense focus on enrollment and engaging the unaffiliated… if families such as ours can’t find a way in due to the obstacles around mental health, what happens to all those who don’t engage because they simply don’t have it in them to try?

My children are just a few of 1.8 million kids in the United States Jewish community. And yet looking across a range of data, one in six of them – an estimated 300,000 Jewish children – struggles with a serious mental health disorder such as depression, debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and self-harm. Of course, this statistic was gathered before a global pandemic, before our kids were required to stay indoors, before they were isolated from their friends and teachers, and before they were taught to fear getting close to other people. It’s very likely that the number of children struggling with their mental health is much higher today.

Due to the Americans with Disabilities Act, all these children have the right to a public education despite their struggles. I am relieved that their future jobs will be protected should they need accommodations to fulfill their responsibilities. Unfortunately, Jewish camps, day schools, synagogues, and other institutions come with no such guarantees. Until we can get to that point, Jewish leaders have an obligation to partner together with each other, with funders, parents, and with our children to make the Jewish community as welcoming, accessible, and as inclusive as possible for kids with a range of emotional, social, and mental health needs.

While real change will require significant investments, there is so much we can do now. Toward that end, I offer some practical suggestions to move us forward in the right direction:

  • If they have not done so already, our federations need to survey the community to better understand the challenges our kids and their families are facing in tandem with their strategic priorities for our communities. This is important independent from what we are facing right now, and it becomes even more of an imperative six months into a pandemic.
  • Schools, camps, synagogues, and other organizations that offer community for children should form mental health advisory committees where parents (and even kids!) can share first-person narratives of their experiences, offer critical feedback and input, and be part of the team that can implement and evaluate new initiatives.
  • Camp counselors, teachers, administrators, and others need access to high-quality, ongoing training so they can fully enact the values they espouse, and work in true partnership with those they serve. These professionals are on the front lines, directly interacting with our children. Their compassion, improved skills, and support will make all the difference.
  • If they do need to turn a family away, Jewish institutions need to do so with as much communication and transparency as possible so that it never comes as a surprise. Offering to facilitate a connection to other resources in the community that may be better able to support a child communicates, “Though we can’t be a home for you, you matter, and there is a place for you within the Jewish community.”

To be certain, our community has massive challenges to tackle with COVID-19, antisemitism, systemic racism, and more. The vast majority of Jewish kids don’t have serious mental health conditions, after all, and time is a limited resource. Since when, though, have we as a people settled for 85 percent success? Yes, we have to think about the rest of the kids who are more or less doing okay, and create an environment that works for them. Yet just as we now understand differentiated learning as good education for everyone, we should all similarly agree that creating a community that is welcoming to kids with a variety of mental health needs will serve everyone well.

As we engage kids with different needs and experiences, and support them through their challenges, we model for our children that caring for themselves and others will ultimately allow us all to thrive. For thousands of years, Jews have acknowledged the challenges of the day and looked toward the future with hope. Imagine if everyone entering the doors of a Jewish institution were told proactively, “You’re not alone. We’ve got you. We’re here for you.” Imagine if rabbis, educators, and Jewish leaders of all kinds assured our kids and their families that mental illness is both extremely common and it is also part of what contributes to the diverse fabric of our community. What would it take for everyone in the Jewish community to relate to Jewish institutions as spaces of safety, healing, and support, rather than spaces of judgment, silence, and shame when it comes to mental health?

Turning these visions into realities will take hard work. I believe we’re up to the challenge.

While Jewish life is in need of funding at all levels, the mental health needs of our children can’t be overlooked. In all likelihood, the majority of major donors who support Jewish causes have someone close to them who could be better held by the Jewish community and they will care about this issue. Let’s find the resources, and let’s not give up until we try.

While my children may not have access to a Jewish education through traditional avenues like camp or day school right now, I still believe this can change and that Jewish institutions that are otherwise vital and vibrant can be inclusive of, and accessible to, kids with mental illnesses.

As we make our way through the month of Elul, the month of introspection reflecting on the year that was, making amends with those we’ve harmed, and setting intentions for the year ahead, I encourage each one of us to consider how we can become part of the solution to this problem. Let’s be honest about our families’ needs, prioritize mental health just as we do physical health, and put some real work into opening our doors wider so we can come ever closer to providing a true community for all.

Carrie Bornstein lives in Sharon, MA with her husband, Jamie, and is the mother of three spunky, energetic, and hilarious members of the Jewish community. She maintains the Mental Health in the Jewish Community Facebook group and is Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center.