Hillel’s prescription to lessen mental illness’ stigma



December 14, 2016

A mental health awareness Shabbat at Columbia/Barnard Hillel in New York last year brought students together in both meditation and discussion about mental health issues common amid the stress of college life.

The event, and others like it, have gotten even students without mental illness thinking about the phenomenon, says Tess Cersonsky, a senior at Columbia University and former leader of Nefesh, the schools’ Hillel-sponsored mental health awareness and support group.

“Right after our first mental health awareness Shabbat, when I gave a quick speech about how mental health awareness is for everyone, people mentioned to me that they had never thought about it that way before.”

With a growing number of college students seeking mental health treatment (a 2015 report from Penn State University showed “slow but consistent growth since 2009”), Hillels are stepping in to provide services for those who need it and support those fighting the stigma of seeking help — often through a Jewish lens.

“Everyone is going through the same developmental issues during this period — school anxiety, relationship stress, sexuality, dealing with how to navigate drug and alcohol use,” says Danica Bornstein, the licensed clinician on staff at University of Washington Hillel.

UW Hillel is the rare campus religious organization that has its own licensed therapist on staff treating students. UW is one of the first Hillels to offer this service, and others are noticing.

“It’s an incredible model that all should take seriously,” says Rabbi Jeremy Fierstien, executive director of University of Maryland, Baltimore County Hillel.

Bornstein says Jewish students have a unique set of issues. “They are dealing with specific identity issues, like interfaith dating and having different relationships with Judaism and Israel.”

Still, the stigma — real or perceived — of asking for help didn’t allow for what University of Florida 2015 alum Gabrielle Magid calls a “I’m not feeling myself at the moment” moment.

“People were dealing with the stress of being a student and being away from home for the first time,” she says. “I knew there were resources available on campus, but they weren’t made accessible for students to seek help.”

So Magid in 2013 founded Stronger Than Stigma, a nonprofit dedicated to mental health advocacy for millennials. Stronger Than Stigma seeks to connect students to mental health resources on campus, support those struggling, and educate their friends. Magid says she learned the ropes of nonprofit management while an intern at UF Hillel, and that Hillel has generously supported her organization.

Elsewhere, Hillels are raising the issue of mental health in novel ways. Hillel at the University of Southern California’s annual art exhibit this year focused on health, self-care and wellness and — in a nod to the coloring book rage that many find therapeutic — featured an interactive mandala coloring wall. Large black-and-white images were mounted to the walls for students to fill in with any colors they chose.

Such approaches can make mental health discussions less stigmatizing and more common. Bornstein’s bottom line is that “we are all made in the image of God exactly how we are. In the Jewish community we need to embrace each other that way.”