January 19, 2020

Making Teen Mental Health a Priority

Three years ago, Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas received an out-of-the-blue text from one of his young congregants, a 13-year-old girl. The two met soon thereafter. The rabbi discovered she was in trouble despite having a loving and supportive family. She was suffering from severe depression and contemplating suicide. She needed help.

Fortunately, that girl, Dani Pattiz — now 16 and, in her words, doing “great” — got the help she needed. And her struggles, at least in part, inspired what Kipnes called a “transformation” at the temple.

“Every synagogue says they are youth friendly,” Kipnes said. “But it’s a different thing to say we are going to make sure these kids remain in front of our eyes and their families’ too, and we are going to be intensely aware of their needs, their moods and stresses.”

In the past couple of years, employees at the Reform synagogue — from teachers to the bookkeeper to the school registrar — have received extensive training on how to listen to teens and their parents and what questions to ask. All gatherings of preteens and teens at the temple now typically begin with some kind of stress-reduction exercise, whether a few minutes of meditation or calming coloring, or going around in a circle and sharing “joys and oys.”

In addition, the temple has hosted several events designed to support this population, including a Parent-Teen Mental Health & Wellness Summit in February, spearheaded by rabbinic intern Julie Bressler. The half-day gathering, co-hosted by the Caring Community Foundation, a nonprofit that Kipnes started in 2000, drew more than 100 people, primarily parents and therapists — some temple members, many not — as well as a smattering of young people.

“I did have a strong support group. Yet at the same time, I was still threatened by the stigma of whatever imagined consequences might come to bite me if I managed to speak up and ask for help.” — Dani Pattiz

Dani Pattiz, her mother, Debby, and psychologist Gia Marson led a workshop at the event. Its title, “Talk Loudly and Talk a Lot,” was courtesy of Dani Pattiz. She shares that message in her outreach efforts with students, teachers and staff at middle schools, with the goal of removing the stigma of mental health struggles. (She was in middle school when her own descent began.)

“My greatest regret in life is not getting help sooner,” Dani Pattiz said. “I did have a strong support group. Yet at the same time, I was still threatened by the stigma of whatever imagined consequences might come to bite me if I managed to speak up and ask for help.” Consequently, throughout her middle-school years, she suffered silently, maintaining good grades and doing her best to hide her pain. It wasn’t until a close friend from URJ Camp Newman, a Jewish residential camp in Northern California, privately contacted Dani’s parents and told them that Dani wasn’t doing well, that Dani’s mom realized her daughter needed help.

Debby Pattiz, too, while admitting the topic is still emotional for her, has become an outspoken advocate for talking about mental health. She is also refreshingly frank about the factors that contributed to her not recognizing that her daughter was in crisis, starting with the popular parental notion that when girls become teenagers they are going to be “mopey and manipulative.” Consequently, Debby assumed Dani was exhibiting “normal teenage-girl behavior.”

“I wish I had gotten Dani’s own advice: talk loudly and talk a lot,” Debby Pattiz said. “I wish that we had been able to talk about mental health and that there had been a societal conversation about it before it happened.

“Like when my kids were 9 and 10, I started talking with them about sex. The idea was, let’s talk about this before it’s embarrassing.

“What if we did the same thing as a society with mental health? What if we talked to fourth- and fifth-graders — not in huge, gory detail and not necessarily about themselves or their particular issues, but this is a thing that happens. … Just have that be a conversation that people have at their dinner tables, in their classrooms, so when it does happen, it’s not this big, terrifying thing that then makes you go into your shell.”

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for children and young people from age 10 to 24. Rabbi Kipnes said 1 in 5 students in the Las Virgenes School District, the school system of many Or Ami families, talk about having suicidal ideation.

Jewish teens may face particular pressures.

“Children of a people whose survival and flourishing has historically depended on our ability to excel, particularly in scholarship and business … are taught explicitly that success in whatever endeavor they pursue is non-negotiable,” Kipnes said.

“Al achat kama v’kama (how much the more so) for Jewish youth today, when our achievements and failures, our talents and our flaws, and whether we are keeping up with the Steins next door, are publicized daily on social media.”

Is My Teen Depressed?

How do you know if your child or a friend of your child is struggling and might need help? Psychologist Gia Marson, who has a private practice in Santa Monica and Calabasas, offered these tips.

Of course, it’s best to err on the side of getting help if you aren’t sure.

• Distinguishing between sadness and depression, and stress and anxiety, is difficult.

• Look for impairment and changes in functioning. For example, is your child, who used to love going out with their friends no longer doing that? Have they stopped finding pleasure in activities they used to enjoy? Are they quitting a once-beloved team or avoiding things you think they normally would not avoid?

• Notice your own biases about mental health.

• Ask the question: Are you OK? And: Would you tell me if you aren’t OK?

• Talk to other adults in your child’s life. Parents of busy teenagers start seeing them less and less. A coach, counselor or teacher might be able to offer additional insight.

• If your teen does open up about his or her struggles, your job is to listen, not to jump in and fix things, but to listen and understand, and together devise a plan.