The topic of inclusion in the Jewish community of children and adolescents who have mental illness is timely for several reasons. First, we read in this week’s Torah portion many laws about how to have a civil society. We are enjoined to protect those who are vulnerable; the Torah refers to widows and orphans. There are signs that our Jewish community is starting to become aware of a different vulnerable population: families with mental illness.

A recent article discussed efforts at Temple Beth Elohim to address the needs of adults who have mental illness. I want to respond to that post. As an instructor for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I educate parents about child and adolescent mental illness. In writing this post, the opinion that I am expressing is my own. I am a special education attorney specializing in mental illness, autism and transition planning.

I am gratified that the Jewish community is starting to recognize that families of individuals with mental illness require support and inclusion. I have the following suggestions based on my knowledge and on confidential conversations with families. These recommendations are for synagogue members, youth group leaders, religious school staff, parents and friends.

  1. Have humility. Even if you have training in mental health or a medical field, do not assume that you are informed or knowledgeable about a family or child’s situation. It’s possible that a child can have mental illness without exhibiting any outward signs of it. I recently met a polite, friendly teenager who happens to have serious psychiatric illness; she appeared to be a typical 16-year-old.
  2. Educate yourself from reputable sources such as the National Institute of Mental Health and NAMI.
  3. Respect the privacy of the child and the family. Avoid asking intrusive questions and pay attention to the impact of your questions on the listener. I witnessed an adolescent struggling to avoid answering the intrusive questions asked by an adult during a Friday night kiddush at a synagogue. The adult is a practicing mental health counselor and she should have paid attention to the teenager’s obvious discomfort. The girl reported that because of her discomfort caused by that conversation, and her concern that other people might ask similar questions, she planned to avoid attending any synagogues.
  4. Certain individuals in the local Jewish community constantly spread personal information about families’ psychiatric matters. Knowing that any information shared could be broadcast erodes feelings of trust. I have asked a rabbi to address the issue of lashon harah about psychiatric illness and I am hoping for a community response.
  5. When you observe that parents and children are having difficulties, offer them privacy. It can be uncomfortable to witness parents and children who are engaged in conflict; however, your involvement or offer to help can ignite the situation.
  6. Realize that the families whose children have mental illness are attempting to create or maintain well-balanced lives and that when they socialize, they may want to discuss topics other than their children.
  7. Offer to assist them even on short notice and consider providing your contact information. If a child or adolescent is experiencing a mental health emergency, their parents may need help with errands or they may want you to visit.
  8. Listen to them speak about their child but do not offer advice unless it is requested.
  9. Religious school teachers, youth group leaders, JCC group leaders and camp counselors should be flexible in their use of behavioral interventions. Those interventions should be individualized; too often religious schools rigidly adhere to specific methods. A parent told me about a religious school special needs coordinator who insisted that timeouts and sticker charts were the only possible interventions at their school.
  10. Support the integration with typical peers of children and teenagers who have mental illness. Some of these children and their families feel that they are experiencing discrimination when they are told that their only options for access to the Jewish community are through special needs programs such as Friendship Circle, Yachad or Gateways. Be flexible in your expectations for this population because the children and teens can be asymptomatic for long periods of time. With the appropriate interventions, mental illness can be treated.

In these final days of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, ask yourself whether you have welcomed into your community a child or adolescent who has mental illness or their parents.

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