Many individuals have been struggling to adapt to how their lives have changed during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly those of college age. Fortunately, there are many online resources that can help.
On Sunday, July 19, Jewish mental health awareness organizations RUACH: Emotional and Spiritual Support and ChaZak: Because You Matter partnered for a virtual event, the RUACH CHaZak (A Strong Spirit): Wellness in the Age of COVID-19 Conference. At the conference, Jewish college students safely and openly discussed COVID-19’s mental health challenges specific to college life, and ways to cope. Mental health experts, spiritual leaders, professors, social workers and therapists participated in both a Q&A panel and breakout discussions, discussing the pandemic’s impact on stress levels, anxiety and depression in young adults.
The program was also hosted by BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy, an organization that runs therapeutic expeditions for young adults, wellness programs for adolescents and experiential educator courses for Jewish educators.
Many of the participating students, who are now living at home, had developed a stronger Jewish identity while at school, and have spent most of spring semester, and will spend most of fall semester, at home, where families might not hold to the same religious standards.
Rebecca Daniel, of Washington University in St. Louis, who is interning at a mental health startup, reflected on her experience as a Jewish college student during COVID-19 and expectations about Jewish life on campus.
“One of the biggest issues is all of this uncertainty,” she said. As an active WashU Hillel member, she is concerned about how the club is going to continue to provide Jewish community events such as Shabbat dinners and high holiday services. “Everything is so up in the air. My friends and I don’t really know what next semester is going to look like.”
She will likely attend small Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations in her off-campus apartment with friends.
ChaZak, RUACH and BaMidbar have developed initiatives and programs to help students cope with the challenges and changes they are facing.
BaMidbar’s programming, which is inspired by the spiritual growth of the Jews who wandered with Moses in the desert, helps adolescents and young adults improve their emotional awareness, mindfulness, coping skills and motivation in the wilderness, apart from the stimuli they experience in their daily lives.
During the pandemic, explained Jory Hanselman, BaMidbar’s executive director, BaMidbar has moved a lot of its programming online to help Jewish educators understand and respond to their students’ needs and break down the stigma around mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 40% of college students with a diagnosable mental health condition do not seek help––stigma around mental health being the number one reason.
Jason Blatt, founder of student-run ChaZak, and a rising senior at Rutgers University, also related how mental health services can be improved in Jewish education. Torah study, for example, which requires sustained focus and attention to detail, can present special challenges to those struggling with attention deficit disorder. Stressors resulting from the pandemic can lead to further distraction. The ChaZak team understands COVID-19’s acute pressures on the young adult Jewish community and has increased its community outreach.
To build community ChaZak promotes initiatives on Facebook, such as weekly mental health-focused divrei Torah, blog posts and “ChaZak anecdotal videos,” where community members share cathartic personal stories about mental health struggles.
“Volunteers were really stepping up to be there because they care about the cause,” Blatt said. “It was really cool to see how sessions ran––people were starting to connect (online) and provide each other with incredible support.”
Blatt connected with RUACH to create programming for college communities. RUACH is an initiative that is 100% volunteer-based and consists of Jewish emotional and spiritual therapists, social workers, chaplains and advanced students offering religiously inclusive, non-denominational guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic and after.
RUACH founder Taylor Paige Winfield, who is earning a Ph.D. in sociology, launched RUACH on March 26 to address the upsurge in “spiritual and emotional needs” at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last three months, Winfield and her team of 100 volunteers have served more than 300 clients around the world.
“Ruach plans to exist far into the future beyond the pandemic, but we recognize that there is a particularly acute need now for spiritual and emotional health,” Winfield said.
RUACH’s major form of support is its six free support sessions, which bridges the gap between hotline services and longer-term options and connects individuals to longer-term support resources. RUACH is also active on Facebook and Instagram, and offers positive messages and videos to its followers. RUACH is planning on holding a virtual grieving circle later this month to discuss forms of grief and allow participants to share their stories.
By Olivia Butler