How to properly support mental health in war and living abroad - opinion

Masa Israel Journey is committed to supporting mental well-being for Fellows in Israel.

 Tamar Sorek (photo credit: Masa)
Tamar Sorek
(photo credit: Masa)

Working and living abroad can be a thrilling adventure. For young Jewish professionals, the decision to volunteer or intern in Israel can be an especially meaningful experience. As exciting as moving abroad can be, some students, particularly but not exclusively those with mental health issues, may find the prospect of being separated from their family and support network daunting. That’s why Masa Israel Journey is committed to supporting mental well-being for our Fellows in Israel.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has renewed our commitment to supporting Fellows in critical situations. We held a support group event two days into the war, offering individual mental assistance to all who needed it – especially for the 220 Ukrainian Fellows who were impacted by this tragedy. 40% of all Ukrainian Masa Fellows joined us for this event, indicating a tremendous need for collective support across all of our programs.

As well, we offered specific training for staff members that are responsible for the well-being of Ukrainian Fellows across a wide range of programs, providing a greater capacity to help wherever and whenever we can. Many of these staff members have families in Ukraine, adding additional stress and intensifying our obligation to support one another in this vital moment.

The phrase “mental health” has become a buzzword in recent years, and it can include everything from therapy and psychotropic medication to self-care and meditation. At Masa, mental health is central to the way we shape our programs. We understand that moving to a new country can be anxiety-inducing for anyone, and that young people often struggle with the transition. We also know that the prospect of being surrounded by strangers can be stressful for Fellows prone to social anxiety.

Masa, founded by the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel, makes it a priority to create a safe, supportive environment for our Fellows so that their experience in Israel can be grounded, fulfilling and transformative.

Mental health first aid, illustrative  (credit: CLAUDIO SCHWARZ/UNSPLASH)Mental health first aid, illustrative (credit: CLAUDIO SCHWARZ/UNSPLASH)

For Masa, mental health provision starts with understanding mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in five young adults experiences a mental health condition. Such conditions may or may not be triggered by a particular event, but they can certainly be exacerbated by situational stressors, such as unfamiliar environments or life changes.

The Masa Leadership & Impact Center convenes several gatherings throughout the program year with Masa’s programming staff, from directors to on-the-ground counselors, to educate on the relevant issues, and introduce cutting edge research and tools by working with a variety of organizations, such as Enosh – The Israeli Mental Health Association.

This year, Masa held its annual Mental Health Day in partnership with Crossroads, a mental health organization and clinic that provides essential prevention and intervention services for Anglo teens and young adults. Taught by a team of experts, Masa ensures that its approach to mental wellness is both comprehensive and current, to serve the challenges within the demographics we work with.

For example, to tackle the topic of social anxiety and depression, our staff attended educational seminars and Keshev trainings, where they were trained to recognize, evaluate and react to symptoms of mental illnesses and challenges relating to group dynamics that often stem from moving abroad. By placing mental wellness at the center of our programming, members of Masa’s leadership staff are able to act as healthy role models for our Fellows, and respond appropriately when and where support is needed.

Our dedicated team of madrichim and professionals are equipped to assist with any issue that may arise, even critical emergencies. For example, when the Israeli-Hamas conflict intensified earlier this year and Masa’s Fellows had to be evacuated for their own safety, our mental health team was prepared.

We understood that such a sudden shock would require mental health support for different Fellows with a variety of needs, so we immediately connected these Fellows with therapists to help them process their responses and build resilience and coping mechanisms accordingly.

With the knowledge that many times peer-group counseling can be as much of a resource than anything else, we connected Fellows with group therapist so they could share and build their own sense of resourcefulness between themselves, which in turn helped strengthen the bonds between Fellows.

Traveling abroad should be fun, formative and a transformative experience of reconnecting with one’s ancestral homeland. To encourage this, we make sure to communicate to our Fellows from day one that their emotional journey is uniquely theirs and that their feelings, however they may come up, are validated. For instance, if they join our program having been diagnosed with a mental health condition or if they find that the transition to a new country is stressful, we work to support their needs in a way that allows them to reach their full potential on their program.

As the stigmas associated with mental health slowly dissolve and society becomes more open about the need to promote mental well-being, it is essential that offerings like these become a standard component of all study abroad programs. Whether students are traveling to Israel, Spain, Japan or France, their need for comprehensive mental health services and program professionals that take mental health seriously remains constant.

Being taken care of abroad in all areas of health is a priority and ethical responsibility for Masa. Ultimately, these young adults chose a path less traveled and courageously came to grow and develop their skills in Israel. Now it’s our job to have their backs.

The writer is the director of Partnerships & Operations and oversees professional development at the Masa Leadership and Impact Center. She lives in Israel.