By Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox
Our understanding of illness and disease, through the perspective of Torah, is that events which occur in life are not without cause or reason. The Torah consigns to humanity the right to engage in healing, and our hishtadlus – our personal steps to engage in the management of illness through seeking and complying with professional expert help – is in no way a contradiction to our firm faith that HaShem is the only One who determines health, life and wellness.
Chazal have instructed us that there are often conditions which circulate throughout the world, which include contagious and infectious diseases r’l, which we must regard as a “fact of life.” We also know that our Sages have instructed us in safeguards to maintain “shmiras ha’nefesh”, a concept which the Torah enunciates more than once to us. It is for that reason that Shulchan Aruch cites risky actions which we must always avoid lest we become susceptible to harmful consequences.
The world is facing a new challenge. Daily reports alert us to the onset of a virus which has created an emerging health crisis and fears for the safety of individuals as well as countries. Some of our Torah leaders suggest a focus on self-care through spiritual shmira – avoiding misuse of our life-breath i.e. idle gossip, speaking during davening.
From the vantage point of mental health and management of crisis, it is important to consider ‘trauma inoculation’ or steps which each of us can take to prevent our anxiety and worry from turning into fear and panic. Panic is infectious and can ripple through our families and create an atmosphere of dread among our children. Prolonged worry and sadness can also wear down the body and the brain’s resistance to distress and even illness.
Consider these safety steps:
Accurate Information: It is important to gather facts from expert sources. This means not jumping with every new report into alarmist rumoring. Seek out updates, but not to the degree of obsessive and constant preoccupation with the world news, and determine whether there are credible reasons for schools and families to take precautions, or to be more alert and aware, but without becoming hyper-vigilant.
Communicate: Speak with students about their worries. Share factual information so that they have a perspective which is accurate, recognizing that rumor control is damage control, and that anxiety runs out of control when children lack accurate information. Reassure them. Listen to their concerns. Offer perspective and do not ridicule them for being afraid. Rather, validate the source of their worries and support them past their fear. Encouragement, support and reassurance are powerful tools.
Sensitivity: When children learn of a health risk, it is often easy to develop sympathetic symptoms. A common cold, cough, an ache or nausea can all lead a young person to fear that they have “caught it,” and often they will catastrophize that what might be a minor ailment is actually a morbid diagnosis. Recognize that anxiety does often lead to both exaggerated body sensations, and to an amplified interpretation of what the symptom represents. Check with your physicians as needed, but support students in understanding that a cold or flu does not mean that they have contracted a deadly virus or infection. Be patient, be sensitive, and encourage that they will be all right, and when needed, they can arrange an appointment with the family physician.
Hygiene: It is very important that we introduce and reinforce cleanliness and hygiene in and out of our homes, at school, and at work. We must emphasize to families the vital role of handwashing, bathing, use of soap, laundered clothes, washed dishes. This should not become a compulsive ritual, which in itself will generate more anxiety. Rather, a conscientious discussion about committing to keeping and staying clean is a wise and prudent step at this time.
Faith: As with any stress or fear besetting us, this is a time for focused tefilla. Join with your students in praying for this virus to be resolved. Pray for the safety and welfare of family, friends, and the Jewish community worldwide. Discuss faith within the class and at home, bringing HaShem into daily discussions, teaching each child to know that we turn to Him at all times, including times of doubt and uncertainty.
School: Already, in a number of communities, schools have closed when a member of the local community may have contracted the Coronavirus. This takes an immediate toll on all, and on the continuity of Torah study and broad education. It also restricts mobility and activity among the student body and faculty. When a family has been ordered into quarantine, uneasiness among those close to that family and those who have had contact can skyrocket.
Unfamiliar practices such as quarantine, school closure, and shortage of medical tests and medicines can lead to worry, fear and even deflated mood. Restricting students from normal activities and peer interactions can both depress and irritate them.
Have families clarify with medical experts the range of activity needed for maintaining mood energy, familiarizing them with risks and complications.
Some lifestyle changes, hopefully temporary, will occur if school is not in session:
Parents who work should plan supervision of students staying home, and tutors to continue education.
Social support and peer connections are essential for mental hygiene, and alternatives to student play should be explored.
There may be circumstances wherein a quarantined parent must cease direct contact with spouse and children. This will require age-appropriate explanations and attentiveness to the feelings of abandonment and rejection which can afflict a confused child now unable to be near a beloved parent. It is important to consult with a specialist familiar with illness and its impact on the family. Chai Lifeline staff are available for conference calls and material support
In adjusting to changes in reality and lifestyle, it is natural for children to be uneasy, nervous, stressed and irritable. Short term reactions are normal, and should be acknowledged, validated and then dealt with through reassurance and encouragement. Monitor students. In the event that nervousness turns to phobia, or to panic, or to withdrawal and diminished functioning, to obsessional thinking, to compulsive behavior, to disturbed eating and sleeping patterns, or to aggressive acting out, consider a phone consultation with our department’s crisis team for guidance and for support. Most children do not and will not manifest severe signs of distress.
Promote a calm atmosphere for students by maintaining regular routines, schedules and structure. Eating time, sleeping time, study time, prayer time, and productive activity restore a sense of familiarity and normality for children and adults as well.
Teachers and parents set the pace for children, as their sources of sane thinking, their model of faith and religious devotion, and as exemplars of how to face fear and uncertainty. Embrace that role. Savor this task. Stability, consistency and caring are our finest tools in chinuch ha’banim. May we be matzliach in moving past this challenge.
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the Director of Interventions & Community Education at Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline.