By Amalya Teitelbaum, Business Editor & Social Media Manager
Trigger Warning: The following article mentions anxiety disorders, depression, panic attacks, sexual assault, and suicide.
“The biggest challenge you get in life is that of your own brain”
– Rav Nachman Breslov
On February 17, 2020, four students chose to share their mental health journeys at Yeshiva University’s 10th annual Stomp Out the Stigma event organized by Active Minds. There was not a single story that didn’t end in unanimous applause. Stomp Out the Stigma is a YU event that aims to normalize speaking out about mental health issues and encourages students to speak about their mental health experiences. As Etan Neiman, SSSB ‘17, stated the evening of the event, “The word hero gets tossed around pretty easily these days. It was a privilege to get to meet four of them tonight.”
Mental health, up until recently, was a subject rarely touched upon. It was and still is, common to hear comments such as “act normal” or “get over it” in response to hearing someone’s mental health experiences. People were hesitant to hear about mental health problems and people were even more unlikely to speak about them. As if not speaking about it would just make the issues disappear. As if feelings of anxiety, depression, and worthlessness were just “over-dramatic” emotions. That it is just something “every teenager goes through.” Each and every word that the speakers said attacked the toxic idea of “ignoring” mental health. While they were speaking, it was as if they were telling every single student at the event that they were not alone.
Hannah Adler, SCW ’23, one of the incredible speakers from that night, later summed up mental health in a statement everyone should hear: “One of the hardest things about mental health struggles is that your brain can actively tell you that you are alone and are undeserving of help. Depression and anxiety can spend years weighing you down with intrusive thoughts and toxic flawed thoughts. I can honestly say that now, given the opportunity to speak at Stomp Out the Stigma, that I am even further in understanding that no matter what my insecurities might tell me, nobody who struggles is beyond repair or broken, and I hope this can be an opportunity for others to relate to this message as well.”
Hannah spoke about the fear of vulnerability. There is a stigma that expressing any sort of vulnerability makes us a burden. Hannah spoke about how she used to consider it a success when people did not know what she was struggling with. But the problem is, people can’t help you unless you help yourself first. As Hannah so eloquently stated throughout her story, the lies we tell ourselves about being worthless are just that; lies. There was another overarching message to her story: the only person who can take us off our self-destruction path is ourselves.
When Rivky Terebelo, SSSB ’21, one of the Active Minds co-presidents, was questioned regarding the goal of the event she stated, “We hoped that the event would accomplish the student body coming together to open their hearts and minds to understand more about mental illness. For so long, the subject has been taboo in a way that is so damaging to so many people. This event helps stomp the stigma that surrounds mental illness and I think last night showed that.” Shoshana Berger, SCW ’23, shared, “The only thing I can say about this even is that it was absolutely perfect. It accomplished everything it was meant to accomplish. It was perfect” and should leave the Active Minds heads with no doubt that the event met and exceeded its expectations.
When the event ended it was clear that the same question was present in every student’s mind. What can one do to combat the stigma? When asked about this, Terebelo answered, “Over 350 people watched the event and the feedback was beyond incredible. I think that’s one of the most important ways in combating the stigma. Talking and continuing these conversations leaves room for people to acknowledge and talk about their own struggles without the worry of judgment from their peers. That’s a simple way that we can make all those around us feel more comfortable.” As she said, it is simple: All we have to do is make people around us feel like they don’t have to hide, that they don’t have to pretend like they are okay. There are so many ways to do that. Because in reality, it is infinitely easier to walk down the path of stability, or happiness, or even be okay, when you are no longer hiding in the bushes.
The subject of medical treatment for mental illnesses and its supposed stigma was another topic of the night’s speakers. More specifically, the feeling that if you are on medication, you are incompatible with the rest of humanity was addressed. When Max Engel (YC ’21) spoke, he verbalized this exact feeling. He spoke about his experience, going from therapist to therapist trying different doses of different types of medication, experiencing side effects such as fatigue and loopiness. He explained how these side effects were tough to balance in social environments in school. He stated, however, that eventually he reached the right combination, and it had a tremendous positive impact. To quote Max, “I never thought I would be someone who went to therapy and took medication. But these things don’t make you weak. True strength is acknowledging your weaknesses and Being able to ask for help when you need it.” Again, having a weakness in no way makes you weak. Within those weaknesses there is strength.
“On the day that I wanted to die, I wrote a poem. This poem is not a happy one. I was stuck in a frustratingly familiar spiral, everything needed to be done in a delicate order but I have no energy. I’m hungry, tired, my hands are cramped from writing. I want it done and over with, I want to be done with my body, and life is too hard for me to deal with right now.” Zippy Spanjer, SCW ’21, our third speaker, opened up her story with this poem. As she took us through her story she educated us on passive suicidal ideation, when a person desires death but has no specific plan to commit suicide. She talked about her struggles with this along with struggles of worthlessness, panic attacks, and a complete lack of motivation. Towards the end of her story, when she described her current state, Zippy said: “There are still days when I don’t want to get out of bed when I don’t want to brush my teeth. I told my story, not for pity but to make you all understand something. You are not alone; none of us are.’’
Sometimes it is we who needs to figure out that we are not alone. Emotions have a way of shattering stability. Guilt is a powerful emotion. It is so hard to dig yourself out once you are in the pit of “everything is my fault.” Elisheva Zahtz, SCW ’21, the event’s fourth and final speaker, talked about feelings of guilt stemming from a car accident, her parents’ divorce, and from being sexually assaulted. She spoke about blaming herself, she should’ve seen the car coming, she should have said something, or done anything, to protect herself. She spoke about the lawyers pressuring her to make the right choice regarding her parents’ divorce and having no idea what that choice was. Elisheva said when she began therapy it was hard for her to open up because she didn’t want to feel like a burden, but it was therapy that helped her come to terms with everything she went through. Elisheva highlighted an extraordinarily powerful message from her therapist, “you are not powerful enough to be responsible for everything you feel guilty for.” She highlighted that a singular person cannot control everything that happens in life. There are too many unknowns. But one thing everyone should know is that people are, and always will be, here for you.
“The bravery and courage displayed by the speakers worked to tackle such a sensitive topic, especially in this university. The event was incredible and everyone truly gave a voice to many others out there.”
– Josh Segal (YC ’15)
“The event was powerful and inspiring. It’s incredible how brave all of the speakers were. As someone who suffers from anxiety, I know how hard it can be to publicly acknowledge it. Kol HaKavod!”
– Zachary Greenberg (SSSB ’21)
“I just want to say that I related to so many of the things which were described without even knowing I felt these certain ways. I guess that just hearing it out in the open really opens one’s mind to accepting that it’s not so uncommon.”
– Jonathan Berger (YC ’14)
“Stomp Out the Stigma is arguably one of the most important YU events of the year. The jar filled with notes from the audience I got after I spoke one year sits on my bookshelf and I go back to read the notes often. It is important to see first hand how important and impactful this event is.”
– Yael Nissel (SCW ’20)
Even though mental illness is an “invisible illness,” it does not mean suffering has to be invisible. A person does not need to suffer alone. People not only deserve to feel validated but have a right to it. Needing help in no way makes anyone a burden. Everyone is loved and valued and people will always be there for support.
“Only as a community can we validate, strengthen each other and grow together”
– Rabbi Ari Berman, YU President
If you ever need help, do not hesitate to call the following numbers.
Counseling Center: (646) 592-4210, (646) 592-4200
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255