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.