School is a sacred place, it is a place most children would call their second home. The actual number of hours spent in school is comparable to the hours a child spends with his/her parents. When tragedy strikes the world through terror or natural disasters, everyone copes and finds a meaningful reason for unexplainable tragedy or loss of life. When tragedy and loss of life happens in school, there isn’t anything anyone can say to comfort parents and students who routinely go to school. To experience horrors as we all felt this week in our neighboring city, Parkland, is unimaginable. The theme of my message is - Let’s address the elephant in the room! - Mental Illness.
Over the last three years in my role as a High School administrator I have been exposed to many cases where students are going through unimaginable pain, not physically, but mentally. Many times schools mandate therapy and require parents and students to sign a contract that assures the school that their child will be speaking to a mental health professional on a regular basis. Generally, the schools meet resistance with the parents. Why is this the response? Do you know how many parents take their children to doctor appointments daily? How many students sign out early in order to be at a given appointment either at the eye doctor, orthodontist, back specialist, and so on? But G-D forbid anyone should know that I am taking my child to see their therapist (a mental health doctor), lest they think, “something is wrong with my child”. This is a lingering theme in the Jewish community, and our school community is no different. We associate mental health with - “My child will not get married”, and “My child will not be asked on playdates” and, “My child will not get invited to this party”, and “my child is off, and nobody wants to be friends with someone off!”.
Today, the definition of “Off” is simply a derogatory way of saying that socially, or emotionally, someone is different in expressing themselves. What if a child is so shy and they lack self-confidence to speak up in class, or always be the center of attention, why can’t we accept that we are all different? Public speaking is not for everyone. Just like crunching numbers is not for everyone. Or being a coder is not for everyone. Hashem created everyone in His image, not in the most popular students image. We associate what is normal, with what we think or are told is normal. Part of dealing with mental health, is that mental health has a very close relationship with emotional health, and many times we confuse the two. Dealing with mental health is the healthy way to live. We can learn many lessons from the tragic story of the Parkland shooting, and one of those lessons is that many tragedies can be avoided. If we allow mental health to be more accessible and acceptable in society, our mental health professionals would have more access and help differentiate between real danger, and someone being misunderstood. As a community, I know we are going to get stronger together, but I think it’s time we re-commit to making schools the safest place in the world.
Rabbi Aharon Assaraf
High School Assistant Principal