Navigating your Child's Mental Health during their GAP Year in Israel
This guest post was written exclusively for Pack for Israel by Joy Epstein, MSW, an Individual, Couples and Family psychotherapist, with over 35 years of experience counseling teens, their parents, couples and families. For more information on the topic, feel free to contact Joy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Your teen (and you) has decided to take a Gap year in Israel. As a parent, you are probably excited about the opportunities and potential for personal and religious growth, for becoming more independent and developing life skills, as well as the opportunity to explore and become more connected to Israel, Jewish history and culture, and positive role models. Your teen is probably also looking forward to some of the above and in addition to having lots of fun, making new friends and having more freedom and independence.
What teens and their parents may not be aware of, or are not expecting, is that many students who come to Israel for a Gap year program go through some kind of stressful emotional experience during their year in Israel. In addition, since Covid 19, most teens have already been dealing with a level of mental health concerns.
According to a survey done by Machon Dvir, a behavior mental health clinic in Jerusalem, of 500 gap year students between 2017-2020, they reported a rising rate of depression, general anxiety, social anxiety, dissatisfaction with body weight, as well as self-harming behaviors such as alcohol and drug use and self-harm among Gap year students.
In many cases these issues may have been under the surface or possibly even addressed in high school but they can resurface or intensify once a child leaves home. A teen who has been generally anxious, has difficulty keeping relationships, who is insecure, has anger management issues, has difficulty with authority figures, is socially awkward or who has learning difficulties will have a harder time dealing with their issues alone in new unfamiliar environment.
As parents, we need to be aware that these issues are not going to disappear just because our teens are in Israel. As a matter of fact, they may be exacerbated by the demands of the structured program, adjusting to sharing rooms with several other teens, the strong pull of peer pressure, the lack of personal boundaries, as well as various unexpected events that can trigger latent traumas and anxieties.
This does not mean that you shouldn’t let your child come on a Gap year program. But there are several important things that you can and should do so that you and your child are prepared and be able to get the support necessary should they need it.
Parents should ask the Gap year program whether they have on-site professional mental health staff (many programs do) or if they out-source, and to whom? Ask about resources they have available. Find out how the program has dealt with mental issues in previous years. This is a good indicator as to whether the program is knowledgeable and adequately prepared to deal with the spectrum of issues that may arise.
Parents should be fully transparent with the program administration regarding current or past issues that came up with their child, including all the issues mentioned above plus any challenging events that the family may have had to deal with that could have had an impact on their child’s emotional health. If your child has been working with a mental health professional, make sure that that person connects with the staff of the program prior to arrival. A lack of transparency, thinking that this is an opportunity for the child to “get a fresh start” can leave your child without a support network and put your child in a risky or harmful situation.
For a teen or young adult who is already in therapy, it is very important to do research and connect with an English speaking mental health professional in Israel prior to their arrival. This step can help ensure that an appropriate support system is in place before they arrive in Israel and pave the way for a smooth transition and a successful growth-producing year abroad.
Being informed and proactive by providing the Gap year program with all the information and sharing any concerns will help ensure that your child it set up for a positive year in Israel.
There are many English-speaking mental health organizations that provide support and resources to Gap year students in Israel. The following list is not comprehensive but can be a start.
Get Help Israel: https://gethelpisrael.com/ Get Help Israel is an online website that is a comprehensive resource for finding therapists, psychiatrists and mental health programs in English, including a listing of therapists that specialize in working with Gap year students.
Amudim: https://www.amudim.org.il/ Amudim is a confidential resource center providing clinical case management and crisis intervention for individuals and families impacted by abuse, trauma, and addiction.
Crossroads: https://www.crossroadsjerusalem.org/ Crossroads provides essential prevention and intervention programs for Anglo teens and young adults in Israel in order to reach their potential and thrive.
Machon Dvir: https://machondvir.org/ Machon Dvir is a behavioral health clinic in Jerusalem providing Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in English.
Genesis: https://genesisisrael.com/ Genesis Israel combines Innovative therapy and real life experiences to champion mental health and addiction treatment and foster personal well-being.
Koli: https://www.koli.org.il Koli, the Jerusalem Center for Recovery from Eating Disorders, provides group therapy and meal support for women and men from the age of 18.
Metiv: https://metiv.org/en/home/ Metiv’s goal is to provide quality, caring and humane clinical treatment to communities and individuals in order to help heal and empower those exposed to traumatic life events.