Mental Health in Day Schools On Our Minds

Image by chezbeate from Pixabay

By Paul Bernstein

In a recent eJP article, mom and Jewish community leader Carrie Bornstein expressed her concern about the fact that, in her view, mental health was absent from the important conversations happening about the COVID-19 crisis, particularly with regard to synagogues, camps and schools. She noted that while all of the restrictions and precautions are important, the conversation around mental health is equally as important and should not be forgotten.

We at Prizmah want to acknowledge Carrie’s painful experience with her own children not being able to attend the schools she dreamed they would. The feelings of rejection and loss that come with a lack of inclusion for Carrie’s and others’ children, combined with the stigma and loneliness that surrounds so many struggling with mental health, is heartbreaking. Carrie: we hear you, we see you, and we couldn’t agree more about the priority that mental health needs to take in our communities and our schools.

Through the thousands of conversations that our team at Prizmah conducts with schools and field leaders, we are privy to the very hopeful information that mental health, social and emotional wellness, individualized care for each child, and inclusion for all are at the very core of their missions. These issues are top of mind for administrators, educators, parents and students, and have been for quite some time. At Prizmah, our work to train school counselors began before COVID-19. In the fall of 2019, Prizmah and Yeshiva University partnered to bring mental health training to almost 20 school counselors in a months-long program where counselors learned from experts and peers.

Over the course of the last six months, as the conversation around mental health in particular has grown increasingly urgent, schools have continued to face the challenge head on to provide support to the whole child and to meet each learner where he or she is – academically, emotionally, and with their set of mental health and support needs. What had been a steadily growing concern prior to COVID-19 over how schools can appropriately support students and families suffering from mental illness quickly became overwhelming anxiety about a potentially emerging crisis in the spring.

Administrators and educators wanted guidance, they sought the support and advice of experts as well as their peers, and they needed access to training and resources to help them support their students and faculty. Beginning in the early spring, during weekly check-ins, heads of school and other administrators expressed grave concern over the effects of too much screen time, isolation, lack of emotional support, lack of routine, and more.

We created a framework to share resources and guidance to support students and teachers: Trends Q & A: Mental Health Issues Today and Moving Forward. Prizmah also fielded a pulse survey in May, to which 110 schools responded, to gauge trends in day schools. Mental health and social and emotional wellness consistently appeared among the top priorities among administrative teams for professional development training.

Under the leadership of Rachel Levitt Klein Dratch, who as director of educational innovation manages Prizmah’s school counselor training work, Prizmah offered a three-day, time-intensive mental health training in July for school counselors and administrators. The commitment was significant: school counselors were required to bring at least one administrator from their school in order to ensure that this was a priority for the whole school, and teams were tasked with building programming for their schools to improve the way they approach mental health and social and emotional wellness in a post-Covid-19 world.

120 individuals from over 50 schools attended, eager to learn and grow in the area of mental health and helping students and families feel supported by their schools. They, along with other school counselors in day schools and yeshivas, have joined Prizmah’s School Counselor Reshet Community, where counselors can have safe conversations with peers and ask questions of each other and of experts in the field to advance their work.

When it comes to the mental health of day school students – our Jewish future – there will never be enough we can do to support their safety and well-being. At Prizmah, we are lucky to witness the significant efforts our schools are making to meet every learner’s needs, no matter the challenge. Indeed, this includes not only students, but also faculty members who may also be struggling with mental health challenges. Other Jewish community organizations, such as Torah Umesorah and many community federations and foundations, support the work of increasing acceptance, understanding, and inclusion of families and faculty struggling with mental health.

The truth is, just like the rest of us, our schools are constantly growing and learning. They are taking this opportunity now, as they have historically done for each new challenge the North American Jewish community has faced, to make real, positive change necessary to confront new realities. They are using this critical time to reflect on how they might do even more, even better. They are committed to ensuring a thriving Jewish day school community for years to come, and they are investing significant resources to increasing their knowledge and development in order to be the heroes that our Jewish students need.

Jewish day schools and yeshivas continue to work to reduce the stigma around mental illness, to make their classrooms and their communities more inclusive, and to support the large and growing number of students, faculty and administrators who struggle with mental health concerns.

There should be no fear of stating the truth: We can and we must do more. The good news is, we will.

Paul Bernstein is CEO, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.