Mental Health in a Yeshiva Setting

By: Gabe Gross  |  August 23, 2021

By: Gabe Gross, News Editor

This is a short article representing my feelings and sharing some tools that I’ve found to be useful in dealing with mental health in a male yeshiva setting. It is much easier to help others than to help ourselves, but hopefully this can be a wake up call to those who need to help themselves. I apologize for not including midrashot (seminaries) in this article, but I felt it would be inappropriate to talk about an experience that I did not have. I hope that this article will be applicable to that world as well.

One of the biggest values that people often take away from their yeshiva experience is the ability to be productive. The positive aveerah (atmosphere) in the beis midrash (place of study) is unmatched in pushing everyone to put forward 100% effort. While this value is obviously a positive, there can be negative impacts that particularly appear amongst anyone struggling with mental health issues. Although I believe everyone can benefit from utilizing these simple tools (that I will go through in detail later), I am not necessarily speaking to people who have not gone through these struggles, but rather analyzing and coming up with methods to help those who have/are going through this struggle in life or in yeshiva

Given that we are all human, we tend to judge people and characterize them based on what we see. It’s easy to understand why your chavruta (study partner) wasn’t in shiur (class) if he got into a car accident. Within the view of mental health, empathy is significantly more difficult. Comments arise such as: “I also get sad, but that doesn’t mean I miss shiur,” “getting up is hard for everyone. He is just lazy,” or “everyone gets nervous but we just have to push through.” If you read those and thought, “wow, what an insensitive person,” I believe that response might be part of the problem. When something is obvious to us we tend to dislike explaining it and even get frustrated at others inability to understand. It’s possible that the world would be a much better place if instead of talking about the person making comments as being insensitive, we directly address the issues the person raises in order to confront the problems at hand.

Depression and anxiety are not simply extensions of sadness and nervousness. Our societal rhetoric too often deems anxiety and depression as extremes of regular emotions instead of addressing them as serious mental health challenges. Depression is not simply “extreme sadness.” Rather, it is a medical issue with the brain. It is as if you told someone with a broken arm that they just “hurt their arm really badly” and should be able to move it. 

In my personal experience, I always felt extremely insecure about my “beis time.” I strived to be as productive as possible, yet on the days when I felt extremely depressed or anxious, I just collapsed and beat myself up over not being the ideal person I wanted to be. It’s very easy for other people to fall into this judgmental paradigm of presuming we know the entire story of the person who is not up for seder (learning) or not spending “late nights in the beis.” Our biggest challenge is when these thoughts come from within and become a part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a person. They cast a looming doubt on our own self-worth, and the worst case scenario can lead to terrible depression and even suicidal ideation.

These are ideas that helped me in yeshiva

  1. Speaking to trusted rebbeim/people you look up to: We should understand that they are probably not judging you as harshly as you judge yourself. Simply explaining where you are at and communicating your mental health challenges enables you to create the space that is necessary for you to succeed in yeshiva. The same way that you would speak to your rebbeim if both of your arms were broken and you could not write, you should speak to them about potential mental health struggles you’re having in yeshiva.
  2. Holding yourself to your own standards: Role models can be great and empowering if used correctly. Realizing that you want to emulate the value of a role model and not the role model themselves is the key to healthy growth. Under no circumstances should you ever compare yourself to someone else because after all, you’re not them, you’re you. The truest form of self-growth, which is derived from kabbalastic/chassidic texts through the panentheistic lens (the belief that the divine pervades and interpenetrates every part of the universe and also extends beyond space and time), is that the only person you should strive to be is the highest extension of yourself. Asking yourself the questions: Who do I want to be? Why do I want to be that way? Does G-d want me to be that way? And how do I become that way? are sure-fire to creating a platform for healthy emotional and spiritual growth. 
  3. Seeking help when needed: Although I personally did not experience this in my yeshiva, others have told me that it can be considered looked down upon to seek real help like therapy. Although your rebbeim and friends can provide essential growth and advice, at the end of the day, they are not and should not be your therapists. The distinctions lie in the degree/professionalism/objectivity that they express over you. I will link several organizations in Israel and America that can help you find a therapist for your gap year/extended yeshiva experience. 
  4. Learn/do what you love; not what everyone else loves. To be more forthright: It’s okay if you do not feel olam haba (the world to come) every-time you learn gemara (talmud). Machshava (Jewish thought), Tanach, halakha, and aggada are all beautiful and fascinating parts of Talmud Torah (the study of Torah). Although we should always strive to learn as much as we can, taking breaks to read your favorite novel or to discuss a topic with friends is in no way shape or form bitul torah (time wasted from learning torah)

Even if you yourself are not struggling with these very issues, you may develop them later in life, and you most likely have friends who are in the various aforementioned situations. I would charge anyone reading this to give some thought as to how they can be an agent of change to a problem that is sweeping through our communities.