I am writing these reflections on the Newtown, Connecticut massacre for The Jewish Press on December 20. Most likely, by the time these words have been published, we will have more information and greater insight and understanding as to what went wrong on that tragic day. Nevertheless, for the sake of my own catharsis, and hopefully for the benefit of the readers of this publication, I share my own humble perspective.
It is amazing to me how the same incident has provoked such a diversity of sincere, passionate and yet opposing responses. There are many opinions on what we can learn from this experience to make our world a better place to live, like the proverbial tabula rasa or blank screen onto which we can project and further our own preconceived agenda on what is wrong with our world in general and how we can fix it.
How can a G-d or at least a benevolent G-d allow the slaughter of innocent children and their noble teachers? Does G-d permit Nature and human nature to simply run its devastating course through Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook Elementary School for the greater, ultimate good, so that we can grow as individuals and come together? Was this an act of evil or of illness? Should we beat our swords into plowshares and remove or restrict all or some types of firearms, or protect the rights of individuals to protect themselves in times of need? Is this the result of poor parenting, a failed mental health care system, inadequate school security or the general glorification of violence in music, media and gaming? How are we supposed to feel and react? What are we supposed to tell our own children to help them feel safe and secure?
Hopefully, in the coming weeks and months we can focus on learning as many lessons as possible from this event and, instead of debating which one thing went wrong, come up with numerous private and public initiatives that will help us all live more peacefully together. Worse than arguing though, would be allowing these lives to have been lost in vain through our doing very little to change, reverting to the familiar status quo, as time passes and memory fades until we face the next crisis.
With this introduction, as a rabbi, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, professor and father, I offer you an insider’s view into our current mental health system as it pertains to the Jewish community. I see thousands of Orthodox Jewish children, adults and couples in Monsey, New York. I teach and consult in educational institutions. I love what I do. I love helping people. My colleagues and I are dedicated, devoted and hard working – and are achieving some amazing results in improving people’s lives. The problem is that we as professional helpers cannot keep up with the rapidly increasing psychopathology of modern living!
Perhaps the most common question people pose to me is: “Am I normal?” The truth is, we have evolved into a new normal and for many that is: my child cannot focus in school or behave properly with peers and siblings; I cannot find a shidduch; my spouse and I are not getting along; I find it difficult to function at work or at home with the children; I am stressed out, scared or sad a lot these days; I feel like I am obsessed with or addicted to… I lose my temper a lot; it is hard for me to sleep; I feel traumatized; I cannot handle looking and feeling older.
It is getting to the point that nearly everyone will need or at least could benefit from some professional mental health services at some point in their lives. Given the vastness of our current communal plight, it is simply not tenable to generate sufficient human and financial resources to evaluate and treat every suffering individual in an office-based setting so that tragedies such as what occurred in Newtown never happen again. We must create a “New-Town.”
Here is one vision of a New-Town: since nearly all young people ages 5 to 18 are found in school and most parents are somehow connected to their children’s school, the school setting is the ideal place for a daily mental health prevention curriculum, geared to each developmental age and stage, conducted in group settings. Throughout my day I find myself repeating, almost verbatim, the same information to parents and students. It would be much more efficient and effective to present the same material en mass. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, people often ask, “Am I the only one with this problem? Everyone else appears to be doing just fine.” Bring together a group of students or of parents and you’ll find that you are certainly not alone in your suffering.
The school setting is also preferable to the office setting in that it reduces the stigma of “mental illness.” The school is neutral ground, a place for learning not just the three R’s but equally important, how to live life well, how to manage stress, moods, anger and relationships. This kind of education is a vaccine, an inoculation against the development of psychopathology and encourages kids and parents to identify more serious problems earlier and seek professional help more readily.
This must become a required curriculum for colleges, yeshivas and seminaries as well since the ages of 18 to 25 is a critical time for the first break of major mental illnesses, identity formation and for laying the foundation for future healthy marital relationships. The workplace must also incorporate stress management programs to improve communication and manage conflict before things escalate into unproductive and wasteful power plays, and the misuse of time and funds.
Finally, we all need to drop the mask of “normal.” Being an Orthodox Jew in the modern world is normally very challenging – beautiful, meaningful – but challenging. We have 613 mitzvos, larger families, a shrinking economy, rising educational costs, increasing expectations within an ever more open and permissive society which often clashes with traditional values. It ain’t easy! It has become “abnormal” or not the norm to feel good most of the time. If this is you, congratulations, you are in an evanescent minority.
Please ask your neighbor, your co-worker, your student, your fellow shul member, your spouse or your child, “Are you feeling okay? If you aren’t, please answer honestly, ‘Baruch Hashem, not really.’” We need to help each other in our New-Town. One kind word or even just listening for a few minutes can literally save a life. One more criticism, harsh word or act can be the Makeh B’patash or last straw that could set someone off and they will take their own life or the lives of those around them. Let us come together to learn and heal from this tragedy in whatever way we can.
About the Author: Rabbi Richard Louis Price, M.D. is a Yale and Columbia University trained Diplomate of The American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology, Assistant Clinical Professor of Weill Cornell Medical College/New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Medical Director of Bikur Cholim of Rockland County and has a private psychotherapy and psychopharmacology practice in Monsey, New York where he resides with his wife and four children.
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