Karen Legman Segal

Addressing Youth Mental Health Through Jewish Tradition

Sad teenage boy sitting against a wall

"He says he has suicidal thoughts… this is not the first time... he thinks about knives and cutting and self-harm and he's only telling me... his camp counselor."

Unusual? It's not unusual. This is a real life scenario. How does this 18 year old counselor help his 14 year old camper?

One in five children, ages 13-18, in the United States, has a serious mental illness. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth, ages 10-24. We cannot escape these daunting statistics, but we can provide tools and preventative strategies for those who work most intimately with our children. In the case above, the camp counselor, astutely and instinctively did the right thing and shared his camper’s pain with the mental health professional in camp. This was a simple intervention that averted a potentially severe crisis.

How can we ensure that cases such as these are handled properly? Will a counselor always listen? Will camp staff always notice? Will the proper help always be available?

With over 20 years of camper care experience, I understand the magnitude of mental health issues and I know that they are not always addressed properly. Today, campers and young adults come to camp with emotional baggage that pose serious challenges and we, the professionals, must respond!

Jews are asked to engage in tikun (repair) and may not turn a blind eye to any physical or emotional crisis. Spiritually healing the soul, body and mind is a core Jewish value.

Jewish tradition teaches us that if we see something that is broken, it is our obligation to repair it. Jews are asked to engage in tikun (repair) and may not turn a blind eye to any physical or emotional crisis. Spiritually healing the soul, body and mind is a core Jewish value. Rabbi Naomi Levy’s prayer reminds us of everyone’s search for healing and comfort: “May your pain cease. May your strength increase. May your fears be released. May blessings, love and joy surround you.”

Care, compassion and knowledge are essential healing ingredients. Dispelling stigma and distinguishing between behaviors that are problematic and those that are simply age-appropriate is critical. Youth Mental Health First Aid Training (YMHFAT) provides the tools that deliver new approaches to crisis intervention. As a seasoned social worker, I feel that receiving YMHFAT certification has given me new strategies and enhanced my perspective.

What is YMHFAT? Youth Mental Health First Aid is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other caring citizens how to help an adolescent (age 12-18) who is experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or is in crisis. Youth Mental Health First Aid is primarily designed for adults who regularly interact with young people. The course introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a 5-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics covered include anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (including AD/HD), and eating disorders.

One of the best “takeaways” for me was internalizing the 5-step action plan called ALGEE. The 5 steps are:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm

  • Listen in a nonjudgmental manner

  • Give reassurance and information

  • Encourage appropriate professional help

  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies

ALGEE is an effective transferable skill to present to camp counselors that can ensure they are equipped to recognize the signs of crisis, take appropriate action, and refer to mental health professionals as needed.

I appreciated the reaffirmation of my longtime belief that anyone interacting daily with adolescents and young adults should be trained in YMHFA. By integrating real life “scenarios” into the training curriculum, the trainers set the stage for empathetic listening, concrete solutions, and evidenced based programs and practice. By taking the YMHFAT course, it becomes easier to intervene and do the Jewish actions of tikun and spiritual healing, and understand that it is essential to exponentially increase mental health wellness in our society.

Karen Legman Segal is the Director of Camper Care for Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. She participated in The Jewish Education Project's Youth Mental Health First Aid certification program as part of the YouTHrive series of workshops designed to help Jewish educators understand their role in helping youth grow into thriving young adults.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires is part of Foundation for Jewish Camp's Mental Health & Wellbeing at Camp pilot program (supported by the Neshamot Fund - Women's Impact Philanthropy of UJA-Federation of NY) to bring YMHFA training to counselors and staff at several NY area overnight camps.

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