Jewish schools’ focus on academic achievement is obstacle to improving mental health, say campaigners

New campaign seeks to foster a sea-change in the way the community’s institutions tackle the problem


Mental health campaigners have called on Jewish schools to address the emotional crisis that a number of pupils are facing before it is too late.

Jonny Benjamin, founder of mental health charity Beyond, said a stigma around mental health and a focus on academic achievement was preventing schools from successfully tackling the problem.

He said: “Academia is still valued over and above students’ wellbeing and that is a big issue Jewish schools are facing.”

He was speaking as Beyond launched its #BrakeTheSystem campaign to raise £500,000 to provide immediate mental health support in school across the UK including Jewish schools. 

“Suicide self-harm and addiction are still really stigmatised,” he said. “People are afraid. We know there are problems with addiction in certain Jewish schools, but they don’t want to address it and they need to do more, be bold and not be afraid to address the issues.”

Louisa Rose the charity's co-founder said mental health stigma remains “endemic in the community. 

“There is such a drive for success and until senior leaders and schools say ‘no, mental health is really important let's break the ground on this and bring interventions from a young age’ we will have the problem that we have now.”

The pair said the pandemic had increased mental health pressures on young people and it was more important than ever for schools to access support they need to help pupils. 

Mr Benjamin said: “So many schools have told us we need more help and support urgently.” 

The #BrakeTheSystem campaign, led by Beyond and supported by world-renowned photographer Rankin, aims to put the faces of young people who are living and struggling with mental ill health front and centre of the discussion on the subject. 

Jewish student Gabriella, 13, who is a Beyond board member and features as part of the campaign, said she wished her school was better equipped to support her with her own anxiety. 

“I was refusing to go to school,” she said. “I’d get upset and always be crying and wasn’t getting much support.”

She said her school didn’t recognise her mental health problems and put her issues down to bad behaviour. 

The charity is already in discussions with Jewish schools to bring in support for them and has called on senior leadership teams to take a proactive response to the mental health of pupils. 

“I really think they need to take action now and not just wait for things to happen,” Ms Rose said in relation to known cases of suicide in Jewish schools. 

“What is needed is… a change of cultures within schools and within the educational system so that children grow up with the language and the tools to understand their emotions and to not feel shame and to not feel fear in addressing them,” she added.

Mr Benjamin said: “There are pockets of really great approaches across the community, Pajes do a great job and Jamie do great things. But it is not enough.

“Let's not wait till there is speculation around the impact on social media on a child’s ill mental health for example.”

He said education on how to use social media safely was needed before children are legally allowed to use it so they are aware of the benefits and the dangers. 

“Let us take four-year-olds and teach them emotional literacy, give them child friendly language to exploring their emotions and their feelings. 

“If we do all of those things then we might not end up where we are.”

Ms Rose said they often here from Jewish teachers who are doing “spectacular” things within the classroom to teach positive mental health practices, but “if it is not coming from the top then they are going to have a uphill struggle to make it have a big impact.

“Unfortunately, the message from the Department For Education has been particularly focused on discipline and behaviour and academic attainment. To layer that pressure on top of broken foundations is just going to create much larger cracks.”

It is hoped photographs taken by Rankin of young people who have faced mental health issues will boost the campaign. Donors can visit on Crowdfunder, or text BEYOND 5 to 70085, to donate £5.

Sarah Simmons, headteacher of Rimon Jewish Primary School in Golders Green, said she had taken an approached that put positive mental health at the centre of the school’s ethos. 

The school provides mental health training to staff and has a psychotherapist come in once a week to support pupils who need it. 

She said as a result of the pandemic children had regressed and were struggling adjusting to being back in a classroom. 

Examples of mental health practices being at the fore front of what they do include a daily circle time for the children to talk about how they feel and what they are greatful for. 

“We have a lunch club set up for children who are having sensory problems adjusting to being back, be that different smells of food, or large groups of people, the point being we help them with it,” Mrs Simmons said.

“We have noticed attachment issues. I want to be sure that all the children feel mentally well and supported after the year they have had. It is really the foundations of what we do.”

She said funding was always a challenge and resourcing mental health support is hard “but we find a way because we think it is worth it.”

Mr S Lewis, Headteacher of Yavneh School, said: “Mental health and pupil wellbeing is at the very centre of everything we are doing.”

The school runs programmes in partnership with the Jewish Leadership Council’s wellbeing project and has a wellbeing practitioner at school who works with pupils and staff. 

Mr Lewis said: “We have worked with Jonny Benjamin and his input has been incredibly valuable. Of course, academic pressure is always there but that never comes at the expense of a pupil’s mental health.

“Greater funding and resources are always welcome in helping us in this.”

Tamar Berman, Head of Schools Strategy at the United Synagogue, said: “We warmly welcome more funding for schools to be able to support our children to tackle the challenges of mental health. We know from our conversations with school senior leadership teams the immense pressures they face, particularly after 15 months of a global pandemic. Schools are aware of the importance of tackling mental health and some already have initiatives to support Jewish students which we encourage. One of the difficulties schools face is that with limited resources and many pressures on their budget, they are restricted in how far they can go. The United Synagogue therefore welcomes any fundraising drive that might enable schools to be better equipped in this area.”

Board of Deputies Senior Vice President Gary Mond said: “The past year has been incredibly challenging for schools and young people in education. The link between the pandemic and negative mental health is well-documented. Jewish schools are already providing support around mental health and it is vitally important that the mental-wellbeing of the young people continues to be prioritised and appropriately funded."

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