Opinion: We Need to Be Trained in Responding to Mental Illness

By Manya Lazaroff

We celebrate survivors of cancer and other illnesses. We call them heroes for what they have endured, and we take pride in their recovery. We should do the same for people living with mental illness.

Some years ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, and I saw that a student I knew had posted that she wasn’t feeling great. I stopped by Abigael’s room (name changed) with hot matzah-ball soup, as I often do. Abigael was well-liked, with a burgeoning social media following. As far as anybody was concerned, she was living the good life. But everyone can use a pick-me-up, right? So we chatted for a bit and we each moved on.

Recently, Abigael called me. “Mrs. Lazaroff, remember that night you brought me chicken soup?” she said. “That was supposed to be my last night on earth. I had everything I needed to end it all, but you stopped by. Somebody cared about me. That chicken soup saved my life.”

Today, Abigael is happily married with children and a rewarding career.

College Station is full of Abigaels. 70% of U.S. college students struggle with depression or anxiety. 7% have contemplated suicide in the past year, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death on college campuses.

When someone undergoes cardiac arrest, immediate CPR doubles or triples their survival rate. A bystander trained to act makes all the difference. A student at Texas A&M is more likely to encounter an individual undergoing a mental health crisis than one suffering from cardiac arrest, and knowing how to recognize the signs – and how to help – can save lives.

Undergoing mental health first aid training is a crucial step in ensuring that tomorrow’s crises are recognized, treated and abated. Chabad at A&M will be offering an 8-hour Mental Health First Aid Training Day, which will teach a 5-step action plan to help people showing signs of a mental health challenge or crisis.

But that’s not enough.

What makes it so much more difficult to respond to a mental health crisis than to someone in physical distress is that people are often afraid to seek treatment. They dread the looks, the whispers; the stigmatization. That has to change.

We need to act towards people living with mental conditions the same as we do towards those living with any illness or disability: supportive, encouraging, and above all, inclusive.

This weekend, the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Texas A&M University will join 200 communities on six continents for ShabbaTTogether, a Global Shabbat of Disability Inclusion and Mental Health Awareness.

It will be a space for students to freely discuss their mental health and wellness. We will discuss disability inclusion and mental health at the Shabbat meals, and we will participate in meaningful prayer services with a focus on including everyone.

We’re using this Shabbat to launch our mental health and wellness initiative: Re-Joy-Vination 360. We’ll be offering various mental wellness and stress management initiatives to help students through challenging times.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Let’s take this time to gain the tools to recognize mental health crises and get people the help they need. Let’s make sure nobody feels stigmatized for what they are going through.

It can make all the difference.

Manya Lazaroff co-directs the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Texas A&M University together with her husband Rabbi Yossi. The Center provides a “home away from home” for Jewish students, providing educational, social, and humanitarian services. As part of their ongoing mental health and wellness initiatives, they will be hosting ShabbaTTogether on Feb. 8-9. For more information, visit JewishAggies.com.