By Dr. Madelyn M. Katz
In raising my two daughters, I had always hoped they would have courage to face life challenges with confidence and character. When they were young, I anticipated that those challenges would be the normal – difficult teachers, college rejections, and boyfriends who dumped them. Little did I know…
My husband and I have two wonderful daughters, ages 21 and 17. They are caring, funny, insightful, respectful, and, yes, courageous. They have had courage in the face of a whole host of their own mental health and addiction challenges – any one of which might have been too much for an adult to handle. Together, they have Clinical Depression (which they come by me genetically), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, ADD/ADHD, OCD, Sensory Processing Disorder, and food and alcohol addiction. They have received excellent medical support and effective medication. Even with positive support, they have still suffered over the course of their childhood and teen years from the daily emotional, psychological, and social challenges that come with any of these disorders.
I suspect many people would look at my daughters and see two “nice Jewish girls.” But what happens when these seemingly “normal” kids experience the pain of mental health issues in their daily lives? What does that suffering look like? And how do we support them so that the Jewish community – synagogue, NFTY, camp and Israel experiences –are safe places for them, places where they can talk about these challenges openly and without shame and deal with them when they rear their ugly heads… all without feeling stigmatized?
My daughters have been fortunate, as the Jewish community – individuals as well as institutions – have given them tremendous support throughout their lives.
- My daughters grew up at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, CA, where their rabbi has offered ongoing support when either of them has faced a bout of depression. No questions. No judgment. Just being there should they need him. He supported my younger daughter as her anxiety disorder kept her from feeling confident about leading a bat mitzvah service. Her anxiety could have crippled her, but our rabbi established an understanding with her that she would not be asked to do anything which caused her unnecessary anxiety. His support allowed a child who might otherwise have hidden in the back of the synagogue to ascend the bimah and lead the entire service.
- At Camp Newman, both daughters experienced bouts of depression during their Avodah and CIT years. In response, the staff did two really important things: They took seriously the pain my kids they were in; no one questioned what they were experiencing. The Nefesh team (clinicians who work at camp for just this type of situation) worked out a plan with my daughters that would help each of them begin to feel better – and within a few days, they both did. They took what could have been a traumatic experience and treated it as just a part of what my kids live with.
- Also at Camp Newman: When my daughter’s anxiety disorder made her extremely nervous about hiking to a campsite, the staff allowed her to ride in the car instead. The message was one of respect and care, which made her feel like a mensch. No stigma. Just regard for the human spirit.
- NFTY events are very emotionally intense experiences! This intensity can often be a trigger to set off a bout of depression, sending a young person into a scary, dark hole – difficult place to be under normal circumstances, but even more so when surrounded by 200 other “normal, happy kids.” Knowing that a NFTYite who suffers from depression would benefit from down time – especially in the middle of a schedule that does not necessarily allow for it – can make a complete difference in the experience youth have. Most of all, they will feel respected, understood, and safe. My girls were always afforded that space and time.
- When my then-19-year-old daughter went on the Hillel Birthright Israel trip, she had just reached one year of sobriety. The trip was a success for her because the rabbi leading the trip gave her some group time to share with her tripmates that she was in recovery. This helped her to maintain her sobriety and keep her head held high.
“Nice Jewish kids” can have mental health issues and addiction. These issues are very real and very prevalent – but they do not have to be painful. Is your community addressing this reality? What are you doing to create an environment in which these Jewish youth feel safe and supported – in which they will have the courage to face these life challenges?
Dr. Madelyn M. Katz is the associate dean of Hebrew Union College’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.