Just as we thought that the world was getting a bit healthier and the pandemic was beginning (hopefully) to fade away, we have been hit by a “second pandemic — a mental health crisis that has been brewing for years but has now reached tsunami proportions. The emotional issues affecting young people, which were exacerbated by the isolation, disrupted routines, and losses of the covid-19 pandemic, are enormous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021 37% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health because of the pandemic, and 44% reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless. In New Jersey, the proportion of depression-related emergency department visits among teens increased by about 38% from 2019 to 2021, according to the New Jersey Hospital Association.
The problem is no less acute in the Jewish community, and our children and teens are struggling to maintain positive mental health. In addition to the routine pressures of growing up — school performance, relationships, gender and sexuality, alcohol and drug use, and so on — our young people are witnessing a rise in antisemitic messages and activities that have led to heightened anxiety and stress.
The problem is increasingly being recognized and addressed by Jewish philanthropists at the national and local levels. The Jewish Federations of North America, which represents 146 independent Jewish federations and 300 smaller communities, recently launched a $2.75 million program called BeWell, which is designed to equip the Jewish community with tools, resources, and training to support the mental health of teens and young adults.
Closer to home in Greater MetroWest New Jersey, the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey has been working to further our mission of improving the health and well-being of the communities in the greater Newark region. We are keenly aware of the need to address this mental health crisis and are supporting many Jewish organizations in our area that are taking forward-thinking, innovative approaches to addressing the mental health needs of young people. Just in the past several months we have awarded grants to support mental health programs to these community partners:
• In Livingston, Lifetown has launched the UMatter @ Lifetown initiative, which is an evidence-based suicide prevention and mental health support program. The program teaches teenagers how to identify the early signs of mental health problems in themselves and their peers and directs them in getting support to those who need it.
• West Orange’s Golda Och Academy has launched Refuat HaNefesh, a trauma-informed education and student support strategy for identifying and serving young people struggling with mental health. Refuat HaNefesh moves away from the reactive, triage approach and towards a more proactive positioning working with the student community.
• In Scotch Plains, HFNJ funding helped JCC of Central NJ hire a licensed social worker for its Camp Yachad summer camp. The social worker supported campers and counselors experiencing social and emotional challenges. Seeing the positive impact the position had on the campers and staff, the JCC is exploring ways to boost its capacity to address youth mental health year-round and across several programs.
• Florham Park-based Jewish Family Service of MetroWest is in the third year of a program training educators and caregivers on mental health, social-emotional learning, and trauma. The group also provides individual mental health counseling, group counseling, and family therapy to those in need.
• Randolph’s Gottesman RTW Academy established a comprehensive model to support the emotional health of children and families from infancy through to adolescence, with a series of educational programs and community events designed to disseminate knowledge and information about how to support mental health.
One common lesson we learn from the programs we have supported is that attending to the mental health of our young people is a communal effort. It requires organizational leadership, funders and philanthropists, teachers, counselors, parents, siblings, and students. Each must learn to recognize the importance of cultivating resilience and safeguarding not just their own mental wellness, but that of those around us.
Another lesson is that any organization that serves young people should be equipped to deal with these important and growing mental health concerns. Looking after the mental health of young people is not the domain of only parents and schools. After-school programs, summer camps, houses of worship, and sports leagues all present vital touchpoints with young people that can be an opportunity to change a life for the better.
Mental health is a community concern, and we demonstrate this by tapping into our shared Jewish values of taking care of our community – the qualities of tzedakah (charity and righteousness) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Our children are our future. By watching over them now, helping them understand that their mental health concerns are real, and teaching them tools of resilience they can use throughout their lives, we build a stronger future for all.
Michael Schmidt is the executive director and CEO of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.
Kevin McManemin is the grants administrator at the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.