Should Hillels Do More to Prioritize Mental Health?

I’m no stranger to issues of mental health. Depression set in shortly after the beginning of the second semester of my sophomore year. I cried incessantly for no apparent reason, I had difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, I loathed running into an ex for fear that he would trigger a panic attack. My janitor even told my roommates that she never saw me smile anymore. I eventually gathered up the courage to write about my experience in an article for the school newspaper, in which I encouraged students to seek help if they were going through a similar situation.

“I’m no stranger to issues of mental health.” | By Zahy1412 [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

After the publication of my article, several Hillel staff members reached out to me, and two took me out for coffee. “I had no idea,” one of them said. “Your mental health is a priority,” said another.

I know that they meant what they said. I’ve developed close relationships with both of the Hillel professionals who met with me – but I couldn’t help but wonder: was it their job to know what I was going through, if my mental health was truly a priority? Do campus rabbis have to play therapist, too?

Hillel’s mission statement is to “enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” So I set out to interview Jewish college students of various backgrounds to see whether or not they felt Hillel’s enrichment program includes prioritizing students’ mental health.

When asked who they would turn to in time of mental health need, most students interviewed replied that they probably wouldn’t reach out to a Hillel staff member first. Nearly all students indicated that they would reach out to a friend or significant other, unless they had a close enough relationship with a Hillel staff member.

Yael*, a senior at a large university in the northeast, had a parent pass away in the middle of the semester, in addition to having an ex stalk her after a bad breakup. She had struggled with manic depression and ADD her whole life but decided to take control of the situation after her father’s passing. “Now, as a college senior,” Yael said, “I still have manic depression, but I manage each attack in a healthy manner.” She sought out the campus psychologist but left after feeling that she was “coddled too much and chose not to use any Jewish resources because she “did not want students to know any of her own weaknesses.” Yael did feel strongly, however, that it is the job of Jewish campus organizations to talk about mental health. “If someone is struggling, it is our job as fellow Jews to help,” she said. She’d “never heard any of the Jewish organizations on campus or otherwise talk about mental health at all.”

Nell, a senior at Princeton University, who’d been involved with Hillel for her first two years but has decreased her involvement over the last two, is thankful she’s never had any serious mental crises. “But if I had,” she said, “I probably wouldn’t go to anyone at Hillel. I just never really formed close enough relationships with Hillel staff to feel like unloading all my problems and stress on them would be welcome. Nor would they be able to help me, since they didn’t really know that much about me. If I had a close relationship with any of them, I might go to them. But I don’t.” Avner, a recent graduate of UCLA, would like to see more Hillels have therapists on staff. Or alternatively, “Rabbis are kind of therapists, too,” he said. “Maybe they should hire rabbis who have a background in therapy?”

Taylor, a sophomore at the University of Rochester and a former Hillel student board member, echoed Nell’s sentiment. “I’m close to one person at my Hillel, but if it came down to it, I’d go to my friends, significant other, or counseling services if I needed help,” she said. When asked if Hillel should care about its students’ mental health more, however, she responded, “I wish Hillel cared about its students more.” She told me her local Hillel had gone directly against most students’ wishes in a referendum which changed ways in which the organization worked, from Shabbat dinners to other programming.

To be fair, some Hillels are investing significantly in mental health programming and resources. A mental health awareness Shabbat at Columbia-Barnard (as well as other campuses across the country) has sparked discussion on the issue, and University of Washington Hillel is one of the few campus religious organizations in the country to have a licensed therapist on staff.

Some students did see Hillel as a mental health resource — at least for certain issues. “I go to my friends and professors when it comes to issues of academic stress or feeling overwhelmed,” said Anna, a sophomore at University of Illinois. “But that’s just because I feel like Hillel professionals aren’t math majors like me. They were really helpful in a case of cyber bullying during the BDS referendum here. They went above and beyond.”

Students ultimately couldn’t agree on the extent to which Hillel should be responsible for Jewish students’ mental health, especially in light of campus psychological services and other support systems. But they all agreed that Hillel is supposed to look out for – nay, enrich – its students and has the ability to help them through tough times, provided staff create the necessary close relationships first. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” said Nell, “if Hillel professionals made it their business to have coffee with every single member of the Jewish community? I know it’s a crazy idea. But it might let students know that someone really cares about them.”

*All names have been changed.

Leora Eisenberg is a New Voices fellow and a sophomore at Princeton, where she studies Slavic studies. She hopes to become an academic one day, but in the meantime enjoys traveling around Central Asia, riding her bike, and studying foreign languages.

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