Spiritual Health Promotes Mental Health


There has been much focus in the past weeks on the importance of SEL, social emotional learning, to ease our children back to school and to support them during this pandemic. Many schools that did not previously have an SEL program in place are implementing one this year. While we have had a weekly advisory program focusing on social emotional skills in my school for some time, this year I would maintain that there is a different SEL that we who are working in yeshivot need to relay to our students. Our students need more of an additional SEL during the months of this pandemic: Spiritual Emunah Learning. 

What are “spiritual emunah skills” and how do we teach them? In Slovie Jungreis Wolf’s book Raising a Child with Soul, she focuses on how raising a child with spirituality is good parenting. Often parents spend more time focusing on the best they can in nutrition, cultural experiences and education instead of excellence in spirituality.

Wolf stresses the importance of building a mikdash me’at—a miniature sanctuary, where G-d dwells—in our homes. We need to do the same in our schools. It is not about bringing your child to shul. (Since we were separated from our shuls for months, and many still are, we cannot rely on shul to provide that “mikdash.”) Nor is it about having a shul in one’s home or school. Rather, it is about “embracing holiness in our daily moments of living.” Children who do grow up in a home or school where G-d is constantly being acknowledged become spiritual. This awareness of G-d exists in good times and bad. During challenging times, this child sees all of life’s challenges through a spiritual eye. 

Emunah has tremendous power to combat the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that we have faced these past months. In a 2015 review by Duke University of 3,000 research studies, 79% showed a link between religion and psychological wellbeing: “Positive religious coping consists of strategies that reflect a trusting relationship with God and a sense of spiritual connectedness to others, including reframing stressful events as reflecting the work of a benevolent God and seeing oneself as collaborating with God to solve problems, among others.” Studies indicate that people who believe in and pray to G-d actually get healthier more quickly, can tolerate pain and difficulty better, have more positive attitudes, are more persistent, and are even happier. Higher levels of “religiosity” are overall associated with better mental health.

Raising children with G-d in their daily lives (emunah) allows them to face life with strength and faith. Wolf tells a story:

[One Sunday morning at Chelsea Piers, my] kids decided to attempt the rock-climbing wall. My then four- year-old son, Akiva, insisted on joining his older siblings as they began their ascent. I watched him harnessed in ropes, as his little figure grew smaller with each step. My heart beat a little quicker until he finally made it down. I ran over to him and hugged him hard. “Akiva, weren’t you scared?” I asked. He looked at me for a second and then replied simply, “No, Mommy. Of course I wasn’t afraid. Why should I be? I was connected!” It dawned on me that this small child had just uncovered a significant truth. You can go through an array of life experiences, some quite difficult to bear; however, if you feel connected to a higher source, you never have to be afraid.
As educators, how do we create this mikdash me’at? In partnership with their parents, we need to help our children to develop personal relationships with G-d and be cognizant of G-d in every moment. 

Emunah is good for our children not only as Jews, it is good for them emotionally as well. It changes one’s whole perspective on life. I often encourage parents of teens to learn the book Living Emunah For Teens by Rabbi David Ashear with their children. The book presents small scenarios like getting a C on a Chumash test or an insult from a friend; if one recalls that G-d is running the show, and it is all part of G-d’s plan, then our worries diminish. Ashear writes in the introduction,

How do you face the challenges of school, family relationships, and friendships? How do you deal with disappointments that cloud every life—the summer job you wanted but didn’t get, the must-have item you can’t have, the learning that just won’t penetrate? A foundation of emunah will change the way you view your challenges.
Rabbi Ashear encourages parents and educators to help their children imagine that they received encouraging notes from G-d whenever they faced a challenge. In our advisory class, we present the students with a scenario of rejection or disappointment, and we ask them,“What kind of words of encouragement do you think a person can imagine G-d is saying to him/her at a moment like this that can help him overcome his upset?”

In his shiur on “Bitachon: Trust in G-d,” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein discusses two types. The first type is the optimistic bitachon, where people are “saturated with faith and hopeful expectations for the future.” This type inspires the believer that with Hashem he can win every “battle” and “everything will be alright.” This belief comes easily when things are hopeful and moving in the right direction. 
The second approach does not “attempt to scatter the clouds of misfortune, try to raise expectations, or strive to whitewash a dark future. It does not claim ‘it will work out for the best.’” Instead, it is the belief that even if things do not turn out the way I want and the outcome is negative, I will always remain connected to Hashem and rely on G-d. This type of emunah may be similar to what those of us are going through right now while there is no cure for this pandemic in sight, but we still believe and know Hashem will be there for us.

Lichtenstein maintains that we have done a good job in our communities and homes in raising our children to have the first type of bitachon, but we “neglected to teach the values of loving trust, of cleaving to G-d without hesitation under all circumstances. We did not fortify our children or ourselves concerning the possibility of crises, conveying that the song to G-d must be sung even on the rivers of Babylon… We taught our students about the ‘human comedy’ but never about the ‘human tragedy.’” We need to do a better job in raising our children to trust in Hashem during tragic times. 

We can all relate to this type of bitachon during this uncertain time of COVID-19, when things may not be better soon. We realize how essential it is to weather these times. Sometimes we need to teach our children to say, “It will be difficult. No miracle may be waiting around the corner. But Hashem is always with me and He will support me no matter how hard it gets.” And, our relationship with Hashem is like all relationships. There are times when we feel G-d close by and times of distance. But G-d is always there. 

In her article “Helping Children Develop Faith,” Sarah Radcliffe stresses the importance of allowing children to express their anxieties. We should never shut them down by saying things like “Don’t worry—G-d always protects us.” Statements like that “should not be offered until you have helped the child address his or her frightened feelings. Fear causes cortical inhibition (a diminished capacity to process and utilize cognitive information), so providing education while the child is in a frightened state is usually useless. Moreover, trying to do so may be perceived as uncaring, which can harm the parent-child relationship.” 

Radcliffe speaks about the importance of accepting their fears and asking them to tell you about it, so that they feel you are there for them. We then need to offer strategies to help them relax and calm their fears. Once they are more relaxed, that is the time to offer statements about belief in G-d, tell stories about how G-d has helped you in the past, or even help them recognize the hand of G-d in their own lives. She says, “Always help your child turn off fight-or-flight chemistry before talking about Divine Providence!”

I particularly appreciate how Radcliffe takes mental health strategies and incorporates belief in them. She calls them “fear busters”; here are her suggestions:

A child who worries is an expert at (negative) visualization. After the child has described his scary image of unfolding events, and you have accepted the worry with open arms, ask him to close his eyes and imagine everything working out just fine. Ask him to describe the positive events in his new “movie” to you. Ask him how the positive image makes him feel. Instruct him to repeat the exercise as often as possible and particularly when the scary story enters his mind.

Another use of this visualization skill is to imagine G-d’s divine protection and assistance in various ways. For example, “see” G-d’s messengers, His protective angels, surrounding the bed when drifting off to sleep.

Teach your child to use the breath to help calm the heart, which will then calm the brain, which, in turn, will release calming hormones to every cell of the body. There are numerous ways to breathe for this purpose, but a simple one is to breathe in normally and then breathe out slowly, thinking the number “one” on the out breath. To be effective in times of need, this breathing pattern needs to be practiced for one minute daily, forever. An ideal time for practice is at bedtime when falling asleep or in the morning just after awakening.
The most powerful way to help children accept the reality of G-d’s kindness is through your positive modeling. When you sound like you believe it, your kids will too!

While guidance staff who work in yeshivot have spent well-invested time in developing their Social Emotional Learning program, I believe that there is now an imperative to turn our focus to Spiritual Emunah Learning. This spiritual SEL can assist our children in developing resilience to cope with difficulties they face now, during COVID, and for the rest of their lives.