Using the Flame to Fight the Darkness: Depression in Jewish Adolescents

by: Vicky Gilpin

Vicky Gilpin, religious school administrator for Temple B’nai Abraham in Decatur, Illinois, is also a teacher at Cerro Gordo High School. A graduate student member of the NRJE executive board, she is currently working on her dissertation about the perspectives of educators within supplementary schools in very small Reform synagogues.

As educators know, some forms of negative behavior from at-risk students present themselves in ways that demand immediate attention: rage, defiance, and physical aggression. Actions resulting from these displays often radiate maliciously from the affected student to harm or otherwise involve students in the vicinity. Other negative behaviors use insidious methods to ensure secrecy: cutting, despondency, and academic self-sabotage. Students may harm themselves physically or emotionally to relieve pain or distract from outside stressors, and the harm is not always evident to those people who would want to help them. Whether obvious or hidden, negative behavior can lead to risky situations involving drug use, alcoholism, lowered inhibitions, inappropriate or unsafe sexual activity, and suicide. The common factor among many of these situations is teenage depression. According to Dr. Nancy Small (1999), “Depression comes in many guises, sometimes wearing the cloak of irritability and rage, sometimes the mask of apathy, and, at other times, an impenetrable suit of crushed armor, tarnished with guilt, despair, and hopelessness”. Therefore, teachers must be savvy in distinguishing depression-related behaviors.

Jewish students are just as likely to suffer from depression and partake in at-risk behaviors as students within secular programs, so it is important for teachers in Jewish educational settings to understand how to prevent, recognize, and relieve depression and related behaviors. In order to battle at-risk behaviors related to teenage depression, it is necessary for educators to explore strategies across the spectrum of secular, religious, and Jewish education.

Is Depression “Jewish”?

Educators may benefit from a reminder of the viewpoints espoused in writings related to depression among Jewish community members. Seeman (2002) posited that “depression, as per Freud’s formulation, is aggression turned inward against the self, a form of dirge and lamentation associated with Judaism from before the time of Job.”. Modern thinkers might prefer recent examples of any connections between depression and the Jewish community. Levav, Kohn, Golding, and Weissman (1997) sought to demonstrate the bias of psychological research of the previous hundred years that declared Jews to have a greater risk of affective disorders than people of other populations. They concluded that one reason Jewish men in particular may have appeared to have elevated rates of depression was due to lower rates of alcohol abuse or dependency. Men in other groups may have the same likelihood of depression, but the characteristics of alcoholism may mask symptoms of depression or help-seeking behaviors. The researchers also discovered that the Jewish men’s level of absorption of area attitudes about drinking affected their use of alcohol as an escape and thus their diagnoses of depression. The information in this study is important for teachers of Jewish students because students assimilated into groups that commonly use alcohol as escape may be more likely to have masked traditional depressive symptoms through at-risk behaviors related to drinking. Teachers have to be aware of symptoms connected to alcoholism, depression, and related at-risk behaviors in order to go beyond the easier route of dismissing students as “problems” or merely defiant. .

Academics and Depression

Secular educational sources provide a wealth of information on helping students with depression and related at-risk behaviors. One of the most common mood issues for adolescents is reactive depression. This mild form of depression is characterized by a difficulty in dealing with problems or negative situations (Koplewicz 2002). Poor decision-making skills can lead students with reactive depression to make at-risk behavioral choices where students with positive decision-making skills might be better prepared to cope with difficult situations. For students with depression, difficult situations may not always arise solely from major life transitions but include daily hassles that people without depression can resolve in a positive manner (Sim, 2000). Understanding reactive depression and how some students cannot deal appropriately with daily hassles can help educators understand why some students overact to what appear to be minor incidents during the day.

Based on the suggested relationship between the way students respond to academic settings and how they respond to other situations, Aunola, Stattin, and Nurmi (2000) studied how student achievement strategies might be discovered and increased in order to benefit students in both academic and non-academic arenas. The study concluded that:

  1. Adolescents’ self-esteem had a direct impact on their use of achievement strategies: the lower the level of self-esteem adolescents reported, the more they displayed maladaptive strategies.
  2. Adolescents’ achievement strategies also had direct impact on their school adjustment: the more maladaptive strategies adolescents showed, the more they displayed maladjustment at school.
  3. Adolescent’s achievement strategies had direct impacts on their problem behaviors: the more maladaptive strategies adolescents deployed, the more they reported both internalizing and externalizing problem behavior.

Therefore, educators might be able to recognize negative behaviors in education as representative or predictive of negative behaviors elsewhere. Not all students who do poorly on class work deal with depression nor do all depressed students do poorly in class, but understanding the connections provides another avenue for teachers to explore in the battle against at-risk behaviors. In addition, encouraging appropriate achievement strategies may benefit students in problem solving outside of the classroom.

Depression Intervention Programs

Puskar, Sereika, and Tusaie-Mumford (2003) examined the effects of one program for teenagers: Teaching Kids to Cope (TKC©). The topics emphasized through the program were “trust, self-image, life stressors, coping, school and teacher issues, parents’ family and communication, peer relationships, and termination.”. The study suggested that because not all students are equipped to cope with the stressors in their lives and may respond in negative ways to those stressors, interventions and education relating to coping skills could benefit teenagers.

Many studies in religious education provide connections between religious observance and education, positive coping skills, decreased at-risk behavior, and lessened symptoms of depression in adolescents (Francis, 2002; Martin, Kirkcaldy, & Siefen, 2003; Wright, Frost, & Wisecarver). Obviously, religious educators strive to encourage Jewish observance, but the heightened need for group acceptance during adolescence increases the need for the benefits found in a day school setting where positive academic performance and religiosity are simultaneously emphasized.

Recently, Jewish programs have emerged to develop positive religious experiences within peer environments for at-risk students. One of these, Camp Extreme, emphasizes learning new behavior patterns and reinforcing them (Berns 2006). The Project Extreme program works to battle self-destructive behavior through the camp experience, placement in a new school, constant contact with supportive mentors, partners, and peers, and get-togethers throughout the year. In this case, learning new behavior patterns is an essential element to success. If students attempt to get help or teachers try to provide help for at-risk behaviors, but the student goes right back to negative peer groups or family situations, the at-risk behaviors can be reinforced rather than diminished. Creating a safe environment within the school where positive behaviors are reinforced can make the difference between maintenance and decline of at-risk behaviors.

For serious and immediate cases, institutions like the Legacy National Jewish Youth Rehabilitation Center in Amityville, Long Island provide recovery and rehabilitation opportunities for adolescent drug-addiction (Dickter, 2000). Jewish educators in the United States can also learn from strategies used in other countries. Another program, Girls for Success, developed by CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection in conjunction with Haifa’s Municipalities Department of Welfare and Social Services, Jewish Family Service of Metrowest, and the Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister Association of Greater Boston, works to help at-risk students in Haifa learn coping mechanisms, life skills, and goal planning (Green 2004).

These programs have in common an emphasis on the importance of positive peer groups, religious development along with rehabilitation, and student understanding of strategies for positive lifestyle choices in academics, stressful situations, and in response to negative stimuli. Day school teachers can learn from these and other examples by creating an environment that promotes positive choices, integration of religion and academics, and self-esteem due to accomplishment.

As well as camps and rehabilitation programs, Jewish online forums are appearing to take advantage of the virtual camaraderie provided by the internet. Many of these forums, bulletin boards, and chat rooms are aimed toward Jewish youth in order to discover trends in discussion, provide answers for anonymous questions, and emphasize the importance of teenage Jewish identity as a barrier to at-risk behavior.

The Role of the Educator

Educators are encouraged by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) to know their students and to create a safe environment for those students. One of the first interventions that Huberty (2006) notes for depressed students is for teachers to develop relationships with students. This provides the students with an opportunity to confide in someone and seek help. Within Jewish institutions, as in public or other private institutions, the knowledge of students’ behavioral patterns, coping mechanisms, and familial as well as other relationships can make a difference. Madison (2007) provides three tips for dealing with students who are depressed in the classroom:

  1. Don’t ignore depressed students.
  2. Let them know you care, but without getting too personal.
  3. Never give up on the student – regardless of how long they haven’t wanted to put forth any effort in your class.

In addition, teachers must communicate with parents, counselors, and administration, never discount even seemingly joking references to suicidal behavior, and be aware of other avenues to help the student (Carnes, 1996). Noticing at-risk behaviors that could signal depression and attempting to help the student through communication, education of coping skills, and integration between religious and academic goals can allow teachers to save a student’s life. By encouraging knowledge of students and the creation of an emotionally as well as physically safe environment, teachers can work toward preventing at-risk behaviors associated with depression.

Tips teachers can use to benefit their students involve encouraging reflective journal activities, creating a connection between religious activities and appropriate decision-making skills outside of the classroom, and modeling creative strategies for time management, problem solving, and effective communication. In addition, teacher-created journals can allow Jewish educators to note patterns of disruption, isolation, or other behaviors indicative of depression. Acknowledging the problem allows teachers to begin to work towards solutions for the problem.


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