Taking care of mental wellbeing on a gap year in Israel

As gap year programs in Israel get underway in earnest, staff and organizers have had to spend a great deal of time preparing COVID contingency plans, travel visas, and accommodation for the burgeoning number of young adults choosing to spend a post-high school and pre-college year in Israel in advance of the new cohorts’ arrival. However, a troubling phenomenon that began long before COVID-19 and has only worsened since the outbreak of the pandemic also requires their urgent attention: the prominence in mental health issues amongst program participants. 

Machon Dvir is a behavioural health clinic in Jerusalem working with English-speaking young people. With government support, Machon Dvir began conducting research in 2017 into the mental health challenges facing gap year program participants and surveyed over 500 young people during the subsequent three years. The results are significant.

In each of the three years prior to the COVID epidemic, 90% of gap year students reported moderate to high levels of mental distress. This startling figure is even more troubling when considering the primary motivations participants highlight when choosing to take a gap year: to have fun, take a break before college and after high school, and focus on self-growth during this life-changing experience. Few expect to go through a stressful emotional experience, yet the vast majority do.

Machon Dvir’s findings related to other mental health issues are also of cause for serious concern. 25% of male and 39% of female gap year students suffer from varying levels of depression during their year in Israel. While these figures appear to mirror those found in the CCAPS-62 survey of over 400,000 college students around the USA, the American survey recorded figures from those already undergoing therapy at counselling centers on campus, whereas Machon Dvir surveyed the general population of students. This means that figures for gap year students should have been much lower but it is not.

Furthermore, the study found that 43% of all students experience general anxiety, with over 35% of males and 46% of females experiencing social anxiety in particular (which is also above the 31.9% average when compared to the population at large). Of those that were surveyed, 40% of females and a notable 51% of males expressed dissatisfaction with their body weight, and while suicide ideation was almost non-existent, 8% of females reported to have started self-harming during their gap year.

Although 25% of those students suffering from mental health issues turned to professional help which led to improvement in their conditions, the overall findings point to systemic problems across the board and signal the need for significant changes to be implemented.

We suggest two principal paradigm shifts for many involved in this important space :

Historically, many gap year programs have taken a more reactive approach to individual mental health issues among participants. For example, a young person found to be suffering from an eating disorder could be sent to receive the required professional assistance as per medical and psychological assessments. While the individual participant receives the specific support needed to address their eating disorder, this approach fails to account for the broader implications for re-integration in  the program, as well as the social-emotional wellbeing of the wider cohort. 

Every program should have a comprehensive mental health and wellbeing framework that caters to each and every participant and member of staff. By consulting with experts to plan for and deal with the consequences of mental health issues through this wider lens, programs will be able to better deal with the inevitable toll that individual cases of mental health issues have on staff and other participants. Stigmas facing the participant receiving treatment will also be reduced and the likelihood of a knock-on effect of associated issues can be reduced.

Those at the forefront of student welfare who can most easily identify the beginning of emotional distress or mental health challenges are the counselors. They see the students each and every and engage with them through the program including downtime, offering a more holistic perspective of the students. Usually, these counselors are young people themselves, working for a few years and then moving on and so the resources invested in their professional development are often minimal. This must change. If we are to recognize the impact these staff have on group dynamics, personal growth and wellbeing, gap year programs have to invest far more in training.

We founded Keshev in light of alarming statistics uncovered by Machon Dvir and others and to support the proactive and ongoing crucial changes that need to be made. In the past six months, gap year students have been exposed to issues heightened by COVID, the Meron tragedy, the Gaza conflict and so much more, and we need to be directing expertise and resources towards training staff and counselors to ensure minor issues can be identified early on rather than developing into full-blown mental illnesses. We hope that through the professional training, education, therapy and support for personnel and the students themselves, we will start seeing the numbers of students reporting emotional and mental distress go down, and many students will have a more positive experience on their gap year in Israel.  

Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy is a co-founder of Israel Impact Partners and was previously CEO of Mosaic United and Dean of Moriah College. Yonatan Sinclair was the director of Bnei Akiva Gap Year Programs, emissary of the Jewish Agency and an educational counselor at Moriah College. Together with Renana Levy they founded Keshev to provide support, therapy and education around mental health and wellbeing: www.keshevcenter.com 

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