Why don’t Jewish students feel like they can talk about mental health?

By Hannah Sharron

We like to think the best of ourselves. We believe that we’re inclusive, accepting and supportive, as individuals and as a Jewish community. Indeed, by and large, this is the case.

So why don’t Jewish students feel like they can talk about mental health?

When one student disclosed a mental illness to her ex-housemate, she hoped this confidence would help her friend to better understand the thoughts that were swirling through her mind and affecting her behaviour.

Instead, the housemate slammed her bedroom door, telling her that she was being ‘selfish’ by ‘ruining the house atmosphere’, and ‘it would be better if she just went home’.

‘Obviously I was really hurt and upset by her reaction, but I don’t blame her for not properly understanding what I was going through. I probably didn’t explain myself very well as I was feeling really low at that point, but I really could’ve done with a friend’s support and she just didn’t know how to give that to me’, the student said.

This student is not alone: the amount of students who got in touch after we announced the relaunch of Reclaim, UJS’ mental health campaign, was overwhelming. They said that they wanted to be involved due to their experiences of mental illness at university: feeling like they had no one to talk to, not knowing where to seek support from their universities, or not getting the right support from their family members or friends.

The taboo on mental health in the Jewish community has definitely started to dissolve. With campaigners like Jonny Benjamin and charities such as Jami, we’re in a much better place than we were a few years ago. But through talking to our students, we found that although mental health no longer holds the stigma that it once did, many people still don’t know how to offer support to friends who disclose a mental illness.

This is problematic because many students leave home for university (the latest research on this, in 2011 by JPR, showed that of the 925 Jewish students surveyed, just one in five respondents (18%) lived at home during term-time, whilst the majority (82%) lived away from home[1].) These students suddenly find themselves without the support networks they are used to; their friends become surrogate families during term time. But their friends can’t offer that crucial support if they don’t know how to, and that’s part of what Reclaim is about.

University also brings new experiences. Countless studies have shown that use of drugs and/or alcohol can exacerbate mental illnesses, and we must be frank: university life can bring unprecedented access to both of these things. Even if you choose to give these things a wide berth, there is still the stress of moving to a new city, learning at a faster pace and with less direct support, doing your own laundry, cooking and cleaning, meeting new people and having to find new friends, and all the other things that come with starting university.

Recent research by NUS has revealed that 78% of students have experienced a mental health problem. And although there isn’t yet any research on Jewish student mental health, the JPR report cited above showed that Jewish students are more worried than students in general about passing exams (76% compared with 68%) and living up to their parents’ expectations (41% compared with 32%). They are also more likely to have relationship issues than students in general (47% compared with 23%), feel lonely (34% compared with 23%), and have personal health concerns, including physical and mental health concerns (28% compared with 18%).

Whilst it would be dangerous to assume a causal link between these statistics and any presence of mental illness in the Jewish student population, the figures do show that Jewish students feel disproportionately stressed, concerned or worried when compared to the general student population; these students need to know that they can ask for help if they need it and they need to know that their friends will be there for them.

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