Are gap-year students with mental health challenges getting help they need?

By ROBBIE SASSOON
August 24, 2019 20:17
3 minute read.
STUDENTS AT Hebrew University in Jerusalem

STUDENTS AT Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The short answer is: It depends.

Underscoring the importance of this question is the alarming trend being documented of the number of teens and young adults struggling with anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies. According to a 2018 World Health Organization report on adolescent mental health, “Depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents and suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19 year olds.”

What we have seen at Crossroads, a therapeutic center for gap-year students and English-speaking teens and young adults in Israel, is consistent with this universal trend.

For the last 19 years Crossroads has been offering therapeutic services to gap-year students, and while many things have stayed consistent in our support, over the last decade the amount therapy cases related to depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts have tripled.

While the year in Israel or gap-year programs did not create these problems, the programs receive thousands of participants each year who often need more professional help than the staff are able to offer.

This mental health phenomenon is coupled with many teens who are already or shortly turning 18 (the legal drinking age in Israel) who are experiencing for the first time the freedom of being away from home. For some, this can lead to various forms of exploration and rebellion that can further exacerbate 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 other 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 which 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 sufficient awareness and sensitivity by staff members. Alternatively, even when the staff are aware and ready to help, there will be participants who are uncomfortable sharing their struggles with the 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 among 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 help ensure the best possible outcome for promoting the well-being of their teen with mental health challenges during their gap-year experience.

These pro-active steps include ask, tell and connect.

First, asking a gap-year program about its on-site 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 adequately 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 teen in a harmful situation.

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.

The writer is an MSW and executive director of Crossroads Center which offers therapeutic services for gap- year students and english-speaking teens and young adults in Israel.


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