Being a teenager is difficult. It is a time filled with all types of changes – biological and physical, social, emotional, and intellectual. What’s more, thanks to the expectations placed on them by society, parents, peers, and, frequently, the pressure they put on themselves, today’s adolescents are extremely prone to stress.
With days (and nights) filled with academics, extracurricular activities, sports, community service projects, religious studies, and homework it’s no wonder that today’s teens are more overwhelmed and worried about failure than their peers in past generations. All this pressure only drives teens’ desire for perfection and fuels their need to be the best – at everything – to keep pace with the competitive world of college admissions.
The number of teenagers who struggle with mental health issues increases daily. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, at least 20% of the teenage population has been diagnosed with conditions related to mental health. I can only imagine how many others face anxiety, depression, and other challenges that remain undiagnosed.
Despite its widespread presence, many of us still speak about mental illness in a whisper. Just as the word “cancer” made us uncomfortable in previous generations, the words “mental illness” often do the same to us today. Worst of all, they prompt negative stereotypes and stigmas, as well as judgmental, discriminatory, and exclusionary behaviors that can blind us to the Jewish concept that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of the Divine). Such behaviors, especially in light of the rash of school shootings in our country, can be culprits that prevent teens from seeking the help they may need.
In a similar vein, as last week’s Torah, B’midbar, reminds us, all of us count. Each of us is part of a greater whole and we matter. Our uniqueness is not simply what makes us human; it is the place in which we find our inner, divine sparks.
Of course, most of us understand that mental illness it is treatable – and, in fact, may have sought medication to help us better manage our own anxiety or depression. We are aware, too, that symptoms can be triggered by situational events or be part of a genetic or neurological disposition. Thankfully, our government recently has increased funding for the treatment of and education about mental illness.
And yet, much remains to be done.
I am hopeful that this month’s promotion of mental health awareness will remind us all that caring for each other is an integral Jewish value and that teens, in particular, need reassurance that they are not alone when facing strife. The ability to rebound from adversity and problem-solve in overwhelming or stressful circumstances are important life skills and it is crucial that teens develop them on the way to becoming successful and confident adults.
Although schools increasingly provide opportunities for teens to develop these skills, a sense of a meaningful, deep connection with Judaism also can help foster teens’ positive development. Of course, being Jewish is only one facet of identity, but when it meets individuals’ needs, it can be of tremendous value, especially during adolescence. It is our responsibility, then, to ensure that the Jewish community is a place of belonging and welcoming for teens and for all who seek a place in our midst.
These books and online resources may prove helpful in this critically important endeavor:
During Mental Health Awareness Month, and always, may our hearts be open, and may we be empowered to reach out to those who in their darkness, need more light. May we feel brave enough to share our own struggles with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. And, may all of us feel safe, loved, and cared for, knowing that we are not alone.
Since 1949, May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month. For more information, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and other online resources.