Last semester, I counseled a student whose father was receiving cancer treatment, two whose grandmothers died of COVID-19, an international student who feared that if she returned home she wouldn’t be allowed back into the country for the next semester, an LGBTQ+ student studying from home with homophobic parents and another student who needed immediate mental health support to prevent self-harm -- all in a single day.
I am not a therapist or a psychiatrist. I am a rabbi. I came to this work thinking that my job as a campus rabbi would mostly focus on teaching Torah, building Jewish community and ensuring that the students at my institution, Yale University, had a wealth of meaningful ways they could connect to their Judaism. Of course, the past year still offered plenty of opportunities to teach Torah and lead students in prayer. Yet my fundamental understanding of my work as a campus rabbi has changed.
This drastic shift in demand for pastoral care may seem like a direct outgrowth of the global pandemic shaking our nation and upending the normalcy of our lives. But as those of us who work most closely with college students can attest, this shift was already in process well before the pandemic began.
In fact, over the past five years, the number of students at Yale seeking mental health services has jumped 60 percent, and we’ve seen a significant rise of those diagnosed with mental illnesses as well. The pandemic has added a new layer to all this, as our students experience new levels of anxiety, grief, social isolation and increased conflict in most spheres of their lives.
Fortunately, the pastoral demands of the pandemic did not completely blindside our staff, because we had already begun to shift our resources in response to the growing mental health challenges our students were experiencing. A vital part of my rabbinic training was in mental health support. Additionally, through Hillel International’s professional development training on wellness, other Jewish educators like I have significantly enhanced our ability to catch early warning signs of psychological distress. We have also benefited from developing relationships with colleagues across the country who are doing similar work around wellness and mental health. Together, we have honed our skills in navigating difficult conversations about mental health with our students and have built a support system that we can turn to when our pastoral load feels overwhelming.
Developing skills to support our students’ mental health needs has led to unexpected outcomes. For the first time, many students with whom we’ve never interacted with before --students who had absolutely no interest in engaging in Jewish life on campus -- have been reaching out to seek grief counseling and pastoral care. Whereas the bulk of students used to engage with us through big events, like 200-person Shabbat dinners, more students are now seeking one-on-one pastoral support.
At times I find it sad and overwhelming to navigate this rise in the need for mental health support. My sadness is compounded by frustration that so many of my students do not feel as if they have anywhere else to turn with their struggles. With the fear of the pandemic, restrictions on the number of students allowed on campus and the challenges of virtual learning, many students have chosen not to enroll this year. That means they are not on the university health insurance plan and cannot receive support through campus mental health and counseling services. Many students all across the country probably have mental health challenges that are going undiagnosed and untreated for this very 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 student mental health offers two valuable lessons.
First, it heightens the importance of college chaplaincy and the partnership of religious institutions and colleges. In our increasingly secular world, it may seem silly to spend so many resources on sustaining campus religious life when the vast majority of students do not identify as religious and choose not to engage in a religious community. Nonetheless, in times of crisis, we are often better poised than other organizations on campuses to meet students where they are and support their psychological well-being.
Second, the broadening of our scope offers important insights for Jewish professionals about the nature of our work. I used to believe the goal of our work was to lift up Jewish life in engaging and relevant ways so that students could think critically about their beliefs, values and identity. In short, I used to work to make sure my students saw Judaism as an integral part of their lives. Now, however, I am working to make sure my students are seen.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to making sure students are seen, but my personal approach has been investing in one-on-one relationships with students and checking in regularly through phone calls, emails and social media. When possible, I plan my meetings and classes around trying to give students as much face time as possible, and I coach our student leaders to do the same. When working with those student leaders, I emphasize that relationship building should come before programmatic ends. If we recruit 20 students to hear a speaker, that is great, but if they all leave feeling just as lonely and stressed out as when they entered, then we have missed the mark. We still run exciting programs, but our metric of success is how clearly students understand that we care about them, that we are around to talk if things feel overwhelming and that we are an accessible and supportive resource.
The value of our religious community is not just in the content we deliver, but also, and more importantly, in the communities we create. After all, what better way is there to make sure Judaism is flourishing on our campuses than to be actively engaged in the sacred work of pikuach nefesh, or preserving life?