Jewish community tackling stigma, challenges of teen mental health
Fighting Stigma

Jewish community tackling stigma, challenges of teen mental health

Efforts to address the problem

Mental health advocate Ayala Rosenthal is a senior at Yeshiva Girls School.

(Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Mental health advocate Ayala Rosenthal is a senior at Yeshiva Girls School. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

There is an alarming lack of resources for teens with mental health issues in Western Pennsylvania, including those in the Jewish community, say officials. That crisis, though, is now being tackled by a number of changemakers who are unwilling to sit back and wait for someone else to address the problem.

Among those is Ayala Rosenthal, a senior at Yeshiva Girls School, who has personal experience with depression — her own, as well as of some of her peers.

At just 17, Rosenthal was moved to act after hearing of a girls’ suicide in a Chabad community in Israel about a year ago, she said.

“People don’t talk about this issue,” Rosenthal explained. The suicide generated conversation, however, because the girl had stepped in front of a train, and the incident was made public.

There is stigma around teen depression in the Orthodox community, Rosenthal observed, which can make the subject taboo.

But that stigma extends to society at large, noted Karen Wolk Feinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in about 4,600 deaths per year, according to recent statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control.

A survey of high school students in the United States revealed that 16 percent seriously considered suicide, with 13 percent actually creating a plan, and 8 percent trying to take their own life in the year preceding the survey, according to the CDC. Moreover, every year, more than 150,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 are treated in emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.

The severity of the problem revealed itself to those at the JHF when the child of a staff member needed help a couple years ago.

“I think in many ways, until it hit home with the teen of one of our staff, we actually weren’t aware of the crisis — and I mean crisis — in teen mental health, both in terms of the increase in behavioral health issues with teens, and sadly, the increase in evidence that there is an increase in the rate of suicide and the number of people seeking help and emergency interventions,” Feinstein said.

Rosenthal, with the support of the JHF, helped organize two training sessions last month to train teens and adults to recognize the signs of depression in youth and how to appropriately respond.

“There are so many people suffering in silence,” Rosenthal said. “And lots of people look fine, but they aren’t at all.”

Rosenthal brought to Pittsburgh Rabbi Yarden Blumstein from Detroit, who “works with suicidal teens, saving lives,” Rosenthal said. On the afternoon of Nov. 18, Blumstein, who operates UMatter, a division of Detroit’s Friendship Circle, spoke to a group of almost 40 girls from Hillel Academy, Yeshiva Girls School and Friendship Circle about teen depression.

“A lot of my classmates learned a lot about what to look for in friends who might be having a hard time,” Rosenthal said.

That evening, Rosenthal helped organize a panel of five mental health professionals to train about 150 adults — mostly members of the Orthodox community — in recognizing teen depression.

The JHF has been working for the last two years on an initiative to improve resources for all teens in the community struggling with their mental health.

“We are looking to bring together different stakeholders and see how we can raise the voice to improve adolescent and behavioral health services,” said Deborah Murdoch, a JHF quality improvement specialist who is involved with the project.

When staff at the JHF began searching for resources for their colleague whose teen was suffering, they realized the “safety net was frayed,” said Feinstein. “When we had so much trouble accessing care — and we are pretty savvy — for a member of our greater Foundation family, we started to do some digging, and realized that the problems our staff person as a mother was encountering were not at all unusual.”

Services for teen behavioral health are “shockingly under-resourced, and underrepresented among advocacy groups,” Feinstein said. “We didn’t find a group that was promoting teen behavioral health on a statewide policy basis. It didn’t exist.”

That was surprising, she said, given a current climate that contributes to increased stress among youth.

“We looked at the environment, with not only what happened at Tree of Life, obviously so close to home, but the number of school shootings and the fact that teens are routinely now — from preschool on — trained to behave and respond to a single shooter episode,” Feinstein said. “It’s pretty discouraging. We have an environment that is creating more anxiety and depression in our youth.”

There is a lack of resources here that includes “too few beds for teens who need them,” Feinstein said. “People wait 11 hours or more at the one emergency ER at [UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital]. And there is no special unit for teens.

“Getting an appointment with a psychiatrist or someone who specializes in adolescent mental health is another challenge,” she continued. “Follow-up for families that leave Western Psych is insufficient. What we have is very good, in many instances. That’s the sad thing. We have some centers of excellence, but they are under-resourced and under-staffed.”

The problem, she said, is not confined to Western Pennsylvania, but is “fairly widespread.”

Efforts in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community to address the crisis in teen mental health include empowering teens themselves to become advocates.

Inspired by the advocacy efforts of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the JHF and partner organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, and Jewish Family and Community Services, is looking for ways to “provide skills and opportunities” for those students who are interested in mental health advocacy, said Murdoch.

Beyond the advocacy initiatives, the JHF and community partners are looking to the Detroit Jewish community for inspiration, Feinstein said.

A program instituted there in 2016 called “We Need to Talk” has focused on education, raising awareness, training regarding suicide prevention and intervention, Feinstein explained. “They are working to train the professionals who work with youth in their community, day school teachers and camp counselors and others with those skills.”

The JHF and its partners are “very focused on the Detroit model,” said Feinstein. “We would like to build a really strong safety net within the Jewish community.”

To that end, the Foundation is seeking a grant from its board to help fund the initiative.

“We are prepared, if [the grant is] approved, to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak,” Feinstein said.

“We’re taking Ayala’s cue,” she continued. “Ayala isn’t waiting for the world to bring services to her yeshiva and Orthodox community. She is taking responsibility. We’d like to do that for the Jewish community.”

Jason Kunzman, chief program officer of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, has been working with the JHF to help bring more resources for teen mental health to Jewish Pittsburgh.

“This is all in the planning stages right now,” he said, but added that the JCC already had met with representatives from the JHF, Pittsburgh’s Federation, the United Way, JFCS and other funders from the region.

Additionally, the JCC recently received a $100,000 grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation, which focuses on behavioral health issues in Western Pennsylvania, that may be used to help fund teen mental health solutions.

The JCC also has planned to add more resources to address mental health issues at its camps, Kunzman said.

“We will be doing a better job of arming our camp staff with skills to identify potential issues and handle challenges as the needs arise,” he said.

In addition to her panel programs last month, Rosenthal has launched an organization she calls AMOTT — Acknowledging Mental Health in Our Teens Together — to “spread awareness, break stigma and support teens” in regard to their mental health. Through AMOTT, Rosenthal hopes to bring to Pittsburgh’s Orthodox communities professionals to teach adults how to notice signs in teens that they are struggling, and to “offer practical tips and advice on how to properly handle and interact with a teenager who is going through a rough time.”

She hopes to create a series of video clips featuring mental health professionals as well as those who have had personal experience with mental health issues. She would also like to launch an adult-to-teen mentoring program, matching adults who previously struggled with mental health issues to teens who are currently struggling, she said. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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