OPINION — The pandemic has created a mental health crisis, and we need to face it with love.
Utah is known for many popular attractions. Whether it’s a breathtaking skiing hill in Park City, or the famous Arches, Zion, and Bryce national parks, there is much to be seen and visited throughout our beautiful state. What a lot of people don’t know is that Utah is also home to hundreds of residential treatment facilities. These facilities help students recover from a range of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.
As a rabbi I have the privilege to counsel so many special and brave young people who have come to Utah in order to better themselves and overcome real challenges. If there is one thing I have learned from my many visits with the hundreds of teens who frequent our state it is this: We all need a little more love.
I’d like to share with you Tina’s story, in order to better illustrate my point. Tina, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is a shy and introverted teenage girl who has been struggling with depression, anxiety and OCD ever since she was 10 years old. Unfortunately, her continuous struggles and inner turmoil eventually drove her to attempt suicide at the young age of 14. Tina was hospitalized and monitored with a full psych evaluation. When her mother made it to the hospital, instead of showering her with the love she was so clearly crying out for, she instead admonished her daughter, calling her selfish and egotistical for attempting suicide. Tina is still working through the trauma from that very painful day.
In hindsight, we all know that her mother’s love would not have prevented Tina from attempting suicide, and it definitely wouldn’t have cured the very real mental illness she struggles with. But in regards to healing from the very real crisis she experienced, how different would it have been if she was shown just a little more love. How different Tina would feel today when looking back at that experience and knowing that she was struggling so deeply, but her mother was nonetheless by her side to love her, support her and get her through this.
As parents, we need to remind our children that they matter. That they are loved and are greatly valued. That they alone carry an inherent meaning and purpose in this life. That they are a gem.
When a child knows that their parents love them unconditionally, they are comforted by the fact that no matter what, they have someone to fall back on, regardless of how badly they’ve strayed. Giving a child unconditional love by reminding them that they are greatly valued will by no means guarantee they will never struggle with mental health issues. However, what this love can accomplish is allowing a child to feel comfortable opening up and sharing the deepest most raw parts of themselves. It allows them to feel safe, valued, heard, and hopeful for a bright future. It enables them to realize that it’s ok not to be ok, and that, in turn, can often be the first step towards recovery when a young person does go through a crisis.
As the world slowly emerges from underneath the crushing collective blow dealt to us by the pandemic, one of the most salient issues is the tremendous toll it has taken on mental and emotional health and wellbeing. Studies found that levels of mental distress had risen by more than 50% during the pandemic, and increases were greatest in young adults. Suicidal ideation has markedly increased as well. It’s clear we’re facing a mental health crisis within the ongoing public health crisis.
Today, we are more and more likely to know someone who’s undergoing an especially difficult time mentally and emotionally. But we might not notice. And if we do notice, we might not know how to respond.
It is crucial that we each have the tools to recognize when someone around us is in crisis. And it is just as important, to respond in the right way: with unconditional, uncomplicated, unwavering love, accepting the person for who they are, directing them to the help they need and supporting them on the road to recovery.
I know it works because it’s what I do.
Unlike the many other professionals these teens meet each day, I’m not there with an agenda: it’s not my job to administer a specific therapy or rehabilitation, and it’s not my job to convince them into leading a religious lifestyle. I just show up every week and provide genuine and sincere love and support. I come in looking beyond the outer shell of the individual, and instead focus on the beautiful gem which I know is inside every single student.
The greatest gift you can give a child is love. This helps them develop the tools and necessary life skills to find themselves and their G-d given purpose in life. Time and time again, I have seen how acceptance and love enables these “gems” to open up, express their feelings and ultimately to heal.
The Rebbe — Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, considered the most influential rabbi in modern history — was once asked how he could stand for so many hours speaking to and blessing people.
“When you’re counting diamonds, you don’t get tired,” the Rebbe replied.
Every individual is pure, good and beautiful. Sometimes that beauty is covered over, like a diamond in the rough, but with some shining we can bring out the beauty of the gem within. All we need are the tools. It’s up to us to step up and educate ourselves: to give ourselves the tools to better face the growing mental health crisis.
This Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12-13, will be marked as “ShabbaTTogether” — a Shabbat of disability inclusion and mental health awareness — in hundreds of Jewish communities around the world. One of the initiatives I’ll be participating in as part of ShabbaTTogether is a series of mental health first responder workshops and seminars on topics like crisis recognition and suicide prevention and postvention.
And it’s my hope that the next time a teen like Tina is facing a crisis, the parent, teacher, friend, community leader or clergyperson who is there will respond with unconditional love.
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