Last semester, I counseled a student whose father was receiving cancer treatment, two of whose grandmothers died of COVID-19, an international student who feared that if he returned home he would not be allowed to return to the country next. semester, one LGBTQ + student studying from home with homophobic parents and another student who needed immediate mental health support to avoid self-harm, all in one day.
I am not a therapist or psychiatrist. I am a rabbi. I came to this job thinking that my work as a campus rabbi focused primarily on teaching the Torah, building the Jewish community, and ensuring that students at my institution, Yale University, had many significant ways to connect with their Judaism. Of course, last year still offered many opportunities to teach the Torah and lead students in prayer. Still, my fundamental understanding of my work as a campus rabbi has changed.
This drastic change in the demand for pastoral care may seem like a direct result of the global pandemic that is shaking our nation and increasing the normalcy of our lives. But as those of us who work most closely with college students can attest, this change was already in the process before the pandemic began.
In fact, over the past five years, the number of Yale students seeking mental health services has increased by 60%, and we have also seen a significant increase in those diagnosed with mental illness. The pandemic has added a new layer to all of this, as our students experience new levels of anxiety, pain, social isolation, and increased conflict in most spheres of their lives.
Fortunately, the pastoral demands of the pandemic did not leave our staff completely blind, because we had already begun to change our resources in response to the growing mental health challenges our students were experiencing. A vital part of my rabbinic training was mental health support. In addition, through Hillel International’s professional development training on wellness, other Jewish educators like me have significantly improved our ability to detect early warning signs of psychological distress. We have also benefited from developing relationships with colleagues across the country who do similar work around wellness and mental health. Together, we have perfected our skills to navigate difficult mental health conversations with our students and have built a support system that we can turn to when our pastoral burden feels overwhelming.
The development of skills to support the mental health needs of our students has resulted in unexpected results. For the first time, many students with whom we had never interacted – students who had absolutely no interest in participating in Jewish life on campus – have been seeking counseling for pain and pastoral care. While most students used to participate with us in large events, such as 200-person chat dinners, there are now more students seeking individual pastoral support.
Sometimes I find it sad and overwhelming to navigate this increased need for mental health support. My sadness adds to the frustration that many of my students don’t feel like they have any other place to turn with their struggles. With fears of the pandemic, restrictions on the number of students allowed on campus, and the challenges of e-learning, many students have chosen not to enroll this year. This means they are not part of the university’s health insurance plan and cannot receive help through campus mental health and counseling services. Probably many students across the country have mental health problems that are not diagnosed or treated for this reason. Fortunately, unlike the university, which limits its work to enrolled students, Hillel has the ability to serve all students and Yale affiliates regardless of their enrollment status.
The work we have done this year to support the mental health of students offers two valuable lessons.
First, it increases the importance of university chaplaincy and the collaboration of religious institutions and colleges. In our increasingly secular world, it may seem silly to invest so many resources in maintaining the religious life of campus when the vast majority of students do not identify as religious and decide not to participate in a religious community. However, in times of crisis, we are often better prepared than other campus organizations to get to know the students where they are and support their psychological well-being.
Second, expanding our scope offers important insights for Jewish professionals about the nature of our work. I used to believe that the goal of our work was to raise Jewish life in attractive and relevant ways so that students could think critically about their beliefs, values, and identity. In short, I worked to make sure my students saw Judaism as an integral part of their lives. Now, though, I’m working to make sure my students are seen.
There is no single approach to making sure students see each other, but my personal approach has been to invest in individual relationships with students and register regularly through phone calls, emails, and social media. Whenever possible, I plan my meetings and classes to try to give students as much time as possible and train our student leaders to do the same. When I work with these student leaders, I emphasize that relationship building should come before programming ends. If we hire 20 students to listen to a speaker, it’s great, but if they all feel so lonely and stressed out like when they came in, we’ve missed the mark. We continue to run exciting programs, but our metric for success is the clarity with which students understand that we care about them, that we are close to talking if things feel overwhelming, and that we are an accessible and supportive resource.
The value of our religious community is not only in the content we offer, but also, and most importantly, in the communities we create. After all, what better way to ensure that Judaism flourishes on our campuses than to actively participate in the sacred work of the peshach nefesh or preserve life?