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Mental health has deteriorated among all age groups, especially the young

Synagogue members fare better than non-synagogue members, but reasons are unclear

Dr Jonathan Boyd

Researchers point to numerous possible causes. Increased use of electronic media. Reduced face-to-face social interaction. Poor or limited sleep. Social media pressures and cyberbullying. Exposure to graphically violent or sexually explicit material. The breakdown of the family unit. Reduction in the amount of time spent with friends or family. Loneliness. Exam pressure. Gender confusion. Increased drug use. Or simply a general sense of malaise about the future, prompted by anxiety about climate change, political discourse or simply finding a job or a partner. 

Whatever the reasons – and in truth, it’s all of these and more – there is little question that mental health levels are deteriorating. Countless studies and academic articles demonstrate as much, based on research conducted all over the world. Many charities have been established to provide support, and numerous national and local government inquiries have been set up to look into it. Slowly but surely, mental health is becoming a more acceptable topic of conversation, less stigmatised, more understood. And yet, according to the latest figures from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, about 3 million people in the UK, and 284 million worldwide, suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. 

A woman visiting her elderly mother during lockdown

Such was the state of affairs before the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, several months into it, there is growing evidence to indicate that however bad things were then, they are even worse now. The pandemic, and the various restrictions to our lives that have accompanied it, have exacerbated the problem. Amidst all our vital efforts to protect physical health, it seems as if we are simultaneously exacerbating a problem that is much harder to see, but no less troubling. 

It should go without saying that Jews are far from immune from all of this. Indeed, the data we have demonstrate that mental health levels among Jews are more or less exactly in line with mental health levels among the population more generally. 

That said, we don’t know anywhere near enough. Studies about mental health among Jews are few and far between. There has been some work done – mainly in the charedi community – but until very recently, no quantitative national data about Jews had ever been published. So the COVID pandemic prompted the team at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research to look into this issue in our 2020 nationwide survey, and we published our findings to coincide with World Mental Health Day. 

There is plenty to chew on in the report, but there’s no question about the finding that concerns me the most. In simple terms, the younger people are, the more likely they are to report mental health issues. The age gradient is crystal clear: the situation with 30-somethings is worse than with 40-somethings which, in turn, is worse than among 50-somethings, and so on. So the age band most acutely affected is the youngest we measured: 16-24 year-olds. Moreover, whilst mental health levels have deteriorated during the pandemic for everyone, it is the among the youngest that they have worsened the most. 

Younger score the highest on mental distress

Wider national and international data report the same thing. There is a mental health crisis afflicting young people. Some of it may be explained by a greater tendency among them to report such problems – older people may be rather more stoic – but there’s no question that the problem is real and widespread. 

However, interestingly, in our study we found that people who are members of synagogues score rather better on mental health scales than people who are not. It’s tempting to argue that belonging to a synagogue serves as a protective factor – intuitively, it makes sense that being part of a community provides one with a support network, a routine, a sense of purpose, all of which could help to offset problems with mental health. 

But as the old adage goes, correlation is not causation. It’s equally likely that people experiencing mental health issues simply don’t join communities because they find them unwelcoming, overwhelming, even alienating. In all likelihood, both claims are true. 

The most acute mental health cases need professional interventions. At the heart of the issue, experts need to understand the underlying causes of what increasingly looks to me like an epidemic. But we all have a role to play. That starts with making our communal spaces – our shuls, community centres, and perhaps most importantly, our schools, youth movements, summer camps and Israel tours – places of solace and comfort for everyone. It’s time to take that challenge really seriously. 

Images of people

Dr Jonathan Boyd

Executive Director

Dr Jonathan Boyd

Executive Director

Jonathan has been Executive Director of JPR since 2010, having previously held research and policy positions at the JDC International Centre for Community Development in...

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