Taking it To Heart – Opinion
Rabbi Nechemia Krakower
Just recently, a fellow teacher approached me with a somewhat shocking question and realization. “It appears that our educational system is essentially the country’s largest first responder unit for the treatment of mental illness. Does that make sense?”
Her question joined similarly challenging things I had heard from fellow educators:
“I realized that I just might be the person who is responsible for identifying a child’s emotional distress and I would be the one responsible for his or her hospitalization.”
“The first call he made from the psychiatric ER wasn’t to his parents but directly to his teacher.”
These, and similar statements, are the types of things we hear more and more as educators. Nearly every day, we are first-hand witnesses to a disturbing trend that it seems the whole world is aware of and talking about: The growing rate of mental illness and in particular the intensifying scope of danger associated with this field of medicine- most prominently in youth and adolescents.
No matter who we talk to, we hear about how there are insufficient resources to address the various forms of mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and more. It is becoming increasingly clear that the primary battleground for addressing these issues is not in the home, but more so in the educational framework. For many children struggling with their emotional challenges, teachers are viewed as a more trusted resource than parents. Additionally, we are often called upon to address and assist with personal conflicts relating to the meaning of life, personal identity, sexual orientation, among other issues that students bring to us regularly.
To be completely honest, this new reality has caught us off guard, not equipped to address the true scope of the challenge. The internal counseling and psychological support systems that exist in most schools are ill-equipped to address the number of cases we are now facing – and in most cases these systems aren’t designed to address the more severe conditions. It is also a real challenge when we are asked to become involved with a child’s medical wellbeing, which can involve hospitalization or ongoing treatment. As committed as we are to a child’s welfare, there is no disputing that such a situation can exceed the typical teacher-student relationship and can even lead to feelings of resentment among fellow students.
But far beyond the practical issues involved, there is a deeply personal element to be addressed. Speaking as an educator for over 20 years, and a as a parent, I can attest that dealing with these issues is something which has led to loss of sleep over many nights.
I was forced to acknowledge that this is beyond the scope for what I was trained. As a classroom teacher and principal, I am seeing more and more requests for help. In the face of those expanding needs, I realized that I needed more relevant training and I was very encouraged to be granted the opportunity to develop a program through Ohr Torah Stone that would teach us educators how to be better positioned to address these challenges.
The program began by gaining a more professional understanding of the field of mental health. We met (and continue to meet) with individuals coping with a variety of mental health challenges and their families and hold regular sessions about how to integrate what we’ve learned into strengthening our abilities in the educational framework.
There is no denying that being exposed to this field is very difficult. Many times after a particular meeting, I am forced to withdraw and sit alone in silence to internalize what I have experienced. My thoughts naturally turn to my loved ones and what they might be going through. Perhaps they need the embrace of an adult and to remind them that they aren’t alone. Personalizing my thoughts gives me that much greater motivation to help others.
As part of the program, we made the decision that it would be important to visit a psychiatric treatment facility. The difficult process of securing this visit and finally making it to the gate of the facility, reminded us that this wasn’t a place that I would ever voluntarily choose to come. But at the same time it was immediately clear that for many, this facility was saving their lives. Walking the corridors, meeting with the patients who often were seeking attention for their pain and the incredible level of attention that the dedicated staff afforded them, were things that weren’t easy to witness. We realized that what we were seeing was just a small glimpse into what these patients – and their families- are dealing with each and every day.
The thoughts which remain from that visit are all very intense but reinforce our understanding that each person deserves our attention and our love. And it reminds us that even in the most challenging of times, this is part of our role as educators. We have a responsibility to be a part in addressing those challenges and not hide from them. We are required to provide a safe space for these students. We need to serve as role models. All this must be a central part of who we are as teachers. Not just to aid our students in their therapies and to make them more effective, but also understanding that our involvement can be critical in identifying and preventing future cases of children headed down a dangerous path on this road of mental health.
In those toughest of moments, when speaking with a young man or woman dealing with the darkest of thoughts, our appreciation for why we need to better train our teachers was reinforced. Certainly, we are not personally immune to these challenges and teachers are just as much a statistic in this battle as anyone else. I can attest to that personally as someone who combatted my own emotional struggles for a short, yet extremely intense, period.
All of this has helped bring me to this realization that a major part of mental health treatment lies in that ability to share and uncover our deepest secrets. So here I am sharing, with the deep hope and prayer that my experiences will help others heal.
Rabbi Nechemia Krakower is Educational Director of the Ohr Torah Stone network of 30 programs and institutions lighting the way in Jewish education, outreach and leadership worldwide