It’s no secret that the challenges of an Ivy League college, exacerbated by an ongoing pandemic, have brought a host of mental health challenges to students.
A series of student health crises last academic year at the University of Pennsylvania was a turning point for Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, Penn Hillel’s executive director. Every week, about 600-700 students, Jewish and not, walk through Steinhardt Hall, Penn Hillel’s on-campus home; Greenberg saw the space and Jewish community there as the foundation for an intervention.
On Oct. 25, Penn Hillel announced a partnership with BBYO Center for Adolescent Wellness “poised to train students at the University of Pennsylvania to be prepared to support the mental health needs of their peers,” according to a press release.
In addition to hiring a culturally competent therapist to provide counseling to students in Steinhardt Hall, Greenberg plans to work with BBYO-CAW to develop a curriculum geared toward Hillel leadership, who will be trained to provide resources and support for peers experiencing mental health challenges.
“The biggest picture for how we’re doing this is trying to approach it from both a top-down and a bottom-up approach,” Greenberg said. “The top-down is having a therapist who could just individually connect with students, and the bottom-up is empowering students to bring this out to their friends and communities in a real grassroots way.”
BBYO-CAW’s first training for Hillel leadership will take place this spring, with a second training scheduled for the fall of next academic year. Forty students are expected to complete the training.
Founded in 2019, BBYO-CAW, part of the larger BBYO Jewish teen movement, has worked with youth-serving organizations across the country to provide policy and procedure change and support to promote mental health awareness and advocacy. The center’s partnership with Penn will be its first time working with a college or Hillel.
According to BBYO-CAW, 60% of students are living with a mental health disorder, and about half of young adults have reported an increase in stress, anxiety and depression since the pandemic’s onset.
“In the post-pandemic world, we’re seeing increasing controlling behaviors, so we’re seeing a lot of disordered eating, a lot of substance use disorders, a lot of nonsuicidal self-harming behaviors,” BBYO-CAW Director Drew Fidler said. “A lot of that is about control and trying to take control back from places in their lives where things are out of control.”
Greenberg added that attending a highly-ranked school such as Penn mounts additional pressure on students.
“There’s a high degree of competition and focus on achievement, and that leads pretty directly to high degrees of anxiety and worry,” he said.
Student leadership at Penn Hillel knows this firsthand. The incoming Hillel leadership team has navigated COVID for the entirety of its time at college.
“COVID has had a huge mental impact, not just in the ways that you would expect of isolation, feeling alone, but also, these trickle-down impacts,” said Lilah Katz, a junior and co-student president of
Katz said that if they had had a “normal freshman year,” they would have had a larger social network and greater integration into the larger Penn community.
Sophomore Eitan Weinstein, Hillel vice president for Shabbat and holidays, shared Katz’ outlook. Though he’s found a new normal, Weinstein said that finding a social network at Penn has been a challenge.
“As time goes on, people are able to find the communities and find resources, but particularly in college, I think that for a lot of people, it can be very difficult to know where to turn,” he said.
Hillel has been at the center of these students’ social life, making the peer component of the peer mental health training especially important. According to a BBYO-CAW study, 79% of young adults will go to a peer first to talk about mental health issues.
“Walking into the counseling center is a huge step,” Fidler said. “It can feel overwhelming sometimes taking that next step, or that first step is paralyzing, while talking to a friend is easy.”
Hillel is one of several “micro-communities” for students, Greenberg said. Beyond creating a support network within the student organizations, student leaders can take their training to their other communities and clubs. And rather than visiting the health center, which feels removed from campus, students are more likely to want to visit a central and convenient location for professional support.
Steinhardt Hall’s position as a high-traffic building and home for the Jewish student community establishes it as the bedrock for these mental health interventions. Students already feel at ease visiting the space to do homework, go to class and socialize with friends.
“Those students are here and, for many of them, they feel very comfortable and safe,” Greenberg said. “This is their home away from home.”