Are post-high school gap year students in Israel with mental health challenges getting the help they need?
Underscoring the importance of this question and whole topic is the growing trend line we are witnessing at Crossroads, a therapeutic center for English-speaking teens and young adults in Israel, including many gap year participants. What we are seeing with the population we serve here in Israel is consistent with the alarming rise being documented globally in terms of the numbers of young people struggling with depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies.
While the “Year in Israel” or “gap year programs” did not create these problems, the programs receive thousands of participants each year who need more professional help than the staff is able to offer.
This mental health phenomenon is coupled with many teens who are already 18 (the legal drinking age in Israel), or close to it, who are experiencing for the first time the freedom of being away from home. For some, this can lead towards various forms of exploration and rebellion which can further exasperate other existing mental health problems.
Some gap year programs have in fact included mental health professionals on their staff. Others have elected to retain mental health professionals on an outsourced basis or readily refer individuals to local community mental health resources in a crisis situation or when outside support is required. From our perspective, this is both a positive and growing trend which should be publicly acknowledged and applauded.
Notwithstanding the increased mental health awareness and support being provided by gap year programs who have chosen to prioritize this issue, too many participants are still ‘falling between the cracks’ of the system. This can occur where there is not the sufficient awareness and sensitivity by the programs. Alternatively, even when the staff are aware and are ready to help, there will be participants who are uncomfortable to share their struggles and suffering with their administration. This leaves these students in a lonely place trying to manage their mental health and well-being on their own.
As evidenced from the above, the topic of serving the mental health needs of gap year students has definitely come a long way.
However, we must be ever vigilant and undeterred in meeting the sobering reality of today’s alarming rise of anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies amongst teens and young adults. We can do no less than find the wherewithal to make sure that no gap year participant will ‘fall between the cracks’ allowing their mental health well-being and personal safety to be compromised during their program experience in Israel.
What Can Parents Do?
Parents can take a number of steps that can ensure the best possible outcome for promoting the well-being of the child with mental health challenges during their Gap Year program experience.
These pro-active steps include Ask, Tell and Connect.
First, asking a gap year program about their onsite and or outsourced mental health staff and resources is a great way to become informed at the outset. Having a conversation about how the program has dealt with mental health issues in prior years is a good indicator as to whether the gap year program is knowledgeable about and readily prepared to deal with the spectrum of issues that may arise.
Second, parents are encouraged to be fully transparent with program administrators regarding current or past issues that have come up with their child and connect the child’s mental health support network with the staff of the program. A lack of transparency and openness could potentially put their child in harm.
Third, for a teen or young adult who is engaged in therapy before entering their gap year program, it is recommended that parents connect them in advance with an English-speaking mental health professional in Israel. This can be done in coordination with their Gap year program staff. This step can help ensure that an appropriate support system is in place before they arrive in Israel and pave the way for a smoother transition and a successful, safe year in their Gap Year program.
Robbie Sassoon, MSW, is executive director of Crossroads, offering therapeutic services for Anglo teens, students, and young adults in Israel.