A college student’s lifestyle can be extremely unhealthy. Besides the physical health issues that may come from binge-eating ramen noodles every finals cycle, students may also develop mental health issues such as severe anxiety and depression, which may be induced from a variety of factors such as stress, pressure to succeed, financial strains and the rigor of academics.
The above is a suitable explanation for why, according to Active Minds (an advocacy organization for awareness of and discussion about mental health), 80 percent of college undergraduate and graduate students report feeling overwhelmed. Furthermore, Active Minds reports, one in four college students has a diagnosable illness, yet a vast 40 percent of students do not address their symptoms, which actually worsen.
For day-to-day stress that doesn’t necessitate professional help, one can learn a great deal about optimism and mental relaxation from Judaism. There are many strategies I have acquired from being Jewish that I believe truly make me a happier and better person. Doing mitzvot, saying Psalms, practicing kabbalah, or meditation, and being an appreciative person have all been beneficial for different people. When I give back to the less fortunate by packing food for the Touch of Kindness/Tomchei Shabbos food bank organization or donating to my local synagogue, I become more appreciative of what I have and it really makes me feel better. (“Helper therapy” is an established psychological principle, as defined by Frank Riessman in 1965 and more recently described in Psychology Today.)
In addition to giving to others, meditative techniques and prayer can provide a sense of calm and relieve stress. Laila Cohen, a third year political science major, told me that saying Psalms had such an impact on her life. She downloaded an app for her IPhone that includes the English translation of the Hebrew text, so she is able to really understand what she is praying. Cohen said, “Just after a few months, I was able to see how [reciting] tehilim [Psalms] changed my life drastically in terms of my personal happiness. I was feeling very under the weather before about specific things occurring in my life, and tehilim altered my mood and made my life so much better by amazing things happening every day.” She told me to try it. At first I was reluctant because of concerns regarding time consumption, but I decided to give it a try. Saying just a few paragraphs a day has done wonders for me. It has calmed my nerves and made me a more positive person.
As I was brought up in a Modern Orthodox context, many of the beautiful values and teachings of Judaism have helped me stay grounded in difficult times. This is not about being religious — or the way you dress, or how often you attend synagogue — but merely about how you can acquire a healthy mindset from the teachings of Judaism.
We all know about our constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, but acquisition of happiness seems less straightforward. Judaism puts it simply: happiness is not about how successful you are, but more about your mentality. As Ethics of the Fathers (4:1) famously quotes, “Who is happy? One who rejoices in his lot.” You can be the richest guy in the world and be miserable, or you can be part of a five-person family living in a one-bedroom apartment and be very happy and appreciative. It is all a matter of perspective and mindset.
Again, this is not to say that prayer or learning can cure mental illness. Rather, Judaism opens doors to a plethora of teachings and lessons that we can apply to our lives in order to become happier individuals. I was able to become less anxious and gain a more positive attitude through Jewish study, participation in community service projects, saying Psalms, and discussing Jewish concepts with friends. This has helped me eliminate negative rumination and realize that some things are not in my hands, and has changed my life for the better.
Please note: Mental health should be taken very seriously and if you suspect a friend or loved one of yours is going through difficult times, do not brush it off. Instead, offer your support, teach your friend positive coping mechanisms, and if the situation is out of your reach, refer to resources such as UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services 24-hour counseling line at (310) 825-0768 or make an appointment with the CAPS center.