Addressing Our Teens' Mental Health Needs

April 18, 2016Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, L.C.S.W.

Adolescence is one of the most change-filled periods of life, a time that’s both turbulent and exciting. During this confusing period, teens may find that previously cherished relationships – including those with parents, old friends, and congregations – now feel confining or suffocating, even though such connections can provide stability and support. Sometimes, they can even provide a lifeline.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five teens and young adults lives with a mental health condition, which can include eating disorders, mood disorders, addictions, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia – and yet, only half of these individuals receive treatment.

Many mental health conditions first become evident in the teen and young adult years, so it’s a crucial time for sharing information, reducing stigma, and offering help – but it’s not always easy for teens and those who support them (including their friends, parents, teachers, youth advisors, and clergy) to determine whether their feelings are part of the normal upheaval of adolescence or signs of more serious issues. In the case of the latter, help is vital in reducing suffering and even saving lives.

Our Jewish tradition commands that we not stand by while our brothers and sisters suffer. That’s why the Reform Movement is joining with others across the world to provide information that offers both help and hope – especially during May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Our Reform entities – including congregations, youth programs, summer camps, and outreach programs – aim to provide accepting, encouraging places where Jewish young adults can feel a sense of belonging, develop skills to manage their emotions, and create enduring relationships in the context of their faith and values. These same settings can further support teen mental health by offering information about the signs of various mental health conditions, providing mental health referrals, and offering safe spaces for teens to feel a sense of belonging and support during difficult times.

Of course, our communities can only provide such assistance when they have access to accurate information, effective programs, and lists of places to refer young people. How can we open conversations about mental health and illness?

  1. Speak about mental illness: Mention mental health conditions from the bimahbimahבִּימָהThe platform in the synagogue from which which worship services are led and from which the Torah is read. The bimah, usually raised, can be placed in the front or the middle of the sanctuary. , in newsletters, emails, and in general conversations, talking about them as common occurrences for which we need not feel shame and for which there is effective treatment. For example, when offering prayers for healing, clergy can mention that we include in our prayers those who are living with mental health conditions, asking for continued strength, healing, and greater openness in our community.
  2. Share real-life stories: Invite speakers to discuss their experiences with mental health conditions during b’nai mitzvahbar mitzvahבַּר מִצְוָהCeremony marking a boy's reaching the age of religious maturity; plural: b'nei mitzvah. training, confirmation curriculum, youth events, and young adult education programs. Hearing the stories and voices of those who have received help can be very effective in spurring those who suffer from mental illness to seek treatment.
  3. Provide lifesaving information: Share information from mental health professionals and invite them to speak at events, too. Contact your local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), Jewish Family Services, and other mental health associations to book speakers, plan programs, and learn more about how to help those with mental health conditions.

Though local resources will differ, the following online information may help community leaders develop individualized programming:

  • Say it Out Loud: This educational program from NAMI includes a toolkit for adult-led discussions and a series of videos of teens talking about their own experiences. This site also provides a list of warning signs to help distinguish mental health symptoms from ordinary fluctuations in mood and behavior.
  • mADAP | A Mobile App for Adolescent Depression Awareness: Presented by Johns Hopkins Medicine, this mobile app for depression awareness can be used as a curriculum supplement or as a freestanding source of information on adolescent mood disorders.
  • Depression in Teens: This page from Mental Health America provides additional information and referral sources on the topic.
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