By: Raphi Singer  | 

Hundreds Tune Into Virtual Stomp Out the Stigma as YU Students Speak About Struggling with Mental Health

YU Active Minds held its annual Stomp Out The Stigma event over Zoom on Wednesday, Feb. 17, in which four current students publicly spoke about their struggles with mental health. The event, which attracted over 320 students, alumni, faculty and administrators, among others, sought to destigmatize mental illness within the Jewish community.

The program began with words from President Ari Berman, who spoke about the importance of hosting events like Stomp Out the Stigma. “It’s only as a community that we can validate and strengthen each other, and grow together,” Berman said. 

Following Berman’s speech, four student-speakers — Hannah Adler (SCW ‘23), Max Engel (YC ‘21), Zippy Spanjer (SCW ‘21) and Elisheva Zahtz (SCW ‘21) — were introduced and subsequently spoke about their individual struggles with mental illness. The event concluded with representatives from Active Minds at YU thanking participants for their time and encouraging the community to continue talking about mental illness.

Adler spoke about her cerebral palsy and how it affected her relationship with mental health throughout childhood, high school and college. She specifically grappled with her own self-image and the isolation, anxiety and depression that came with it. “I was, and still am to a certain extent, so afraid of being vulnerable and authentic in social situations that I never let myself explore relationships with people I now wish could be in my life,” she told attendees.

In concluding her portion, Adler reflected on where she is today. “I’m now mature enough to see that I have the power to go beyond those moments of self-doubt and that I’m only a victim to myself if I let the old me dictate the type of life I’m going to live,” she said. “I’ve found that the new and authentic version of Hannah is one that I can be truly proud of.”

Engel was the second speaker, and he shared his struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). He talked about the different types of OCD he dealt with, such as intrusive-thought OCD in his tefillah (prayer) and religious living, as well as relationship OCD with his high school girlfriend.

Through working with his medication and finding the right therapist, Engel was able to better control his OCD from interfering with his life. “Today, I struggle with some of the symptoms I started with, but I’m able to deal with them much better and function normally,” shared Engel, discussing the progress he made in his journey with mental health. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t have bad days … OCD, as well as most mental disorders, are constant works in progress.”

Next, attendees heard from Spanjer, who began by reciting a poem she wrote when she was suicidal in 2019. She told the audience that her genetic ADHD led her to suffer from a young age. “I was in pain all the time, and I didn’t know why,” Spanjer said. As she got older, Spanjer struggled with depression, anxiety and passive suicidal ideation. After making some progress, Spanjer experienced panic attacks and more ups and downs, leading her to be put on suicide watch in Fall 2019. Then, she started to get better. “I finally felt like I had some solid ground under my feet, and now we’re up to now,” Spanjer reflected to the audience.

Spanjer explained that while she’s made progress, she still has “good days and bad days,” and she emphasized the importance of seeking help. “I’m here to tell you my story, not because I want you to feel sorry for me or to be impressed by what I’ve overcome,” she said to attendees. “You are not alone. None of us are.”

The final speaker was Zahtz, a senior who opened up about her general anxiety disorder and depression from a young age, as well as her complex post-traumatic stress disorder after being sexually assaulted during her gap year in Israel. Throughout her talk, Zahtz emphasized that she constantly felt at fault for things that happened in her life, especially after her assault. “Sexual assault was never something I would have expected to happen to me,” she told the audience over Zoom. “I thought it was my fault for not telling him ‘no’ more clearly, for somehow inviting him to act in the way he did because maybe I had agreed and I didn’t even realize it.” She added, “I didn’t think it was assault because I thought it was my fault, and that’s how it works, right?”

Zahtz stressed the importance of talking about sexual assault in the Orthodox community, which she said happens more often than people realize. Her speech continued by recounting her continued struggle with depression and anxiety before finally finding the right therapist. “I learned to channel my anxiety and my anger and my depression into something productive, to seek out help and to learn when my mental health was trying to get my attention.” Zahtz ended with words of encouragement for the audience, “You are loved and valued, and we are here for you.”

Active Minds aims to destigmatize mental illness in the YU community, and through events like Stomp Out the Stigma, they have gathered hundreds of students and faculty every year to promote conversations within the Jewish community. Past speakers have included students who spoke about depression, and even abuse, with one Stern student opening up about entering an abusive marriage and her subsequent journey afterward. While it began in its early years with a few students meeting in classrooms in Furst Hall, Stomp out the Stigma has grown to become a widely popular event held every year.

After the program, Aaron Purow, head of Active Minds at YU, told The Commentator, “At the event, individuals get up and share a glimpse of their mental health experiences, allowing for people within the YU and greater Jewish community to recognize that mental health imperfections are a normal part of life and are meant to be treated with compassion and love.”

Photo Caption: Stomp Out the Stigma flyer
Photo Credit: Active Minds