How You Help: De-Stigmatizing Mental Health: Cincinnati Hillel Uses Funding Grant to Create Connections During COVID
“In Judaism, the highest value that trumps all else is pikuach nefesh, saving a life,” stated Jeff Silverstein. “That’s not exactly what we think about on a day to day basis with ‘Coping with COVID,’ but in some cases giving mental health resources to students is saving a life.”
Silverstein is the Director of Engagement and Programming at Cincinnati Hillel, and was explaining the mental health initiative, Coping with COVID, which is about to begin its third semester. “We want to make students understand that in our tradition, taking care of your health so you can help take care of the world is really important. We really want to make sure that we are showing that connection—prioritizing the Jewish emphasis on health and wellness.”
Hillel is a pluralistic organization, and is the center for Jewish life on the University of Cincinnati campus. “Our goal is for Jewish students to come in wherever they are Jewishly, grow their Jewish identity, and figure out what being Jewish means to them,” said Rachel Kaplan, Executive Director of Cincinnati Hillel.
“We know students, especially freshman, have trouble meeting people, forming friendships, and building a community,” explained Silverstein. “We used to have students come in every Friday and have dinner—there’s nothing that builds community like sharing a meal, chatting, and singing—but that’s not possible right now because of COVID.”
When Hillel had the opportunity to apply for a one-time inclusion grant from the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, Silverstein, along with Kaplan, did not hesitate to apply. “Mental health has been an issue we regularly see in college students,” Kaplan explained. “Students don’t always recognize mental health issues—or they don’t want to name it because they think there’s a stigma about it, but I think it’s really powerful to give the students ownership of the issue and give them the tools to manage it.”
Through the grant, Hillel was able to host a mental health series in the spring semester of the 2019-2020 school year. “It was a series of five sessions,” Kaplan said. “A small group of about ten students would spend an hour with a mental health professional and a rabbi.” The rabbi would teach a Jewish idea around mental health, while the mental health professional would help teach coping strategies.
“We try to keep the group small. That way people can see the same faces every week, and build a connection, and have conversations,” explained Silverstein. “We don’t expect anyone to bare their soul, but we want people to feel comfortable sharing what’s going on, and with a larger group it can be hard to feel comfortable in that way.”
Only a few weeks into the sessions, COVID-19 lockdowns began, forcing the program online. “When COVID came around, we saw a new level of anxiety and depression and loneliness amongst students,” Kaplan said. “We focused on what students need to know to be able to be good advocates for themselves and their friends; to recognize warning signs, and how to get help. College is a very social time, and removing in-person contact can be very challenging for students.”
Kaplan and Silverstein took what they learned from the first group of students, and for the 2020-2021 school year, created the Coping with COVID series. “For the fall semester we did things a little differently,” Kaplan said. “We had an art therapist, and when students signed up, we set them up with all of the art supplies they were going to need, and good headphones to make the experience more relaxing and enjoyable.”
“We wanted to make sure all five sessions would bring Jewish learning into how we can deal with these various COVID-related things,” Silverstein said. “The first session was about how we as Jews have dealt with times of fear and anxiety in the past. We looked at pieces of Torah and Talmud, and studied the writings of Rabbi Chaim ben Betzalel, who lived through the so-called ‘second plague’ in the 1570s.”
From there, the group discussed loneliness, gratitude, fear, and mindfulness—all of which they were able to connect with in their art. “It’s multifaceted in that we took a lot of different topics and really explored how they have been affected by our experience with COVID,” Silverstein said. “We also tried to focus less on what we’ve lost and more on being grateful for what we have.”
The spring semester of Coping with COVID will begin in March and will run five consecutive weeks. “We don’t want to overload students at the start of the semester,” Silverstein said. “We know stress really starts to seep in and become overwhelming around midterms. We want to connect with them at that time, but also be finished before finals so we’re not another demand on them.”
Silverstein also said the approach this semester will be a little different, building on what has worked over the previous two semesters. “We will still incorporate a rabbi and some Jewish learning, of course, but instead of doing art therapy, there may be an element of mindfulness yoga, along with a social worker who can share practical, pragmatic coping mechanisms students can use when they start to feel overwhelmed.”
Silverstein said the programs have been very successful, based on surveys students take both before and after the program. “It seems like these series are pretty effective and are helping students feel like they have a little bit more of a grasp on their lives.”
“The program gave me something to look forward to each week,” said a first year student. “Going to pick up the supply boxes gave me a reason to leave my dorm, and the program itself gave me a chance to meet other Jewish students on campus and connect with them. It was helpful learning how to deal with COVID, stress, and anxiety, and how it all relates to Judaism.”
“There was one freshmen who would not usually say anything during the sessions—he would always type in the chat because he was doing the program in his dorm room with a roommate,” recalled Silverstein. “I asked him if he wanted us to find a more private setting for him, and he said, ‘No, it’s okay. I’m just so glad that I get to chat with this community. Even if you don’t hear my voice, I’m here, I’m doing the activities, and it’s really cool.’ I think that for that student, giving him the opportunity to be in a different mental space was really important.”
For Silverstein, the Coping with COVID series is something he’s personally invested in. “I have dealt with mental health issues myself, and because of that, I want to try to make student life as good as it can be, and provide students with the resources they need. And I think it’s great—both in Hillel and in the Jewish community as a whole—that mental health is becoming less stigmatized. These students are feeling a little more comfortable coming to us for help and resources.”
All of this was made possible as a result of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati’s Planning & Allocations Inclusion One-Time Grant funding that took place in 2019. “The grant was evaluated by 40 community volunteers,” explained Federation Community Building Associate Alana Goldstein. “They all loved the program, and are excited to see it become such a success. We’re hopeful this one-time innovation funding leads into ongoing future funding.”
And because of the COVID-19 Relief Fund, made possible by our generous community donors, the Hillel mental health program has been able to continue this year. As long as there is a need, Kaplan said they will continue to offer the program, no matter what. “Students are saying this was the best program that they had done in all their years at Hillel. These types of programs are clearly so important.”
“In terms of Hillel in Cincinnati and globally,” said Silverstein, “creating opportunities for students to become leaders, and giving students the opportunity to become the best versions of themselves, is really core to what we do. And I think mental health programming is just part of that. In a program like this, we know we’re adding value. That’s the whole point of doing this work.”
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