Mental Health Concerns During Your Israel Gap Year

For decades, mental health has been a taboo topic, only to be whispered about – if that. It has been heartening to see this reality slowly but steadily be overturned over the past several years. I would like to contribute to that process by discussing perhaps the most consequential time for our youth’s mental health: their year In Israel at a Yeshiva or Seminary. While I am not a mental health professional, my mental health bona fides include years serving as an advocate in my role as Director of Operations at Refuat Hanefesh, as well as having worked through and come out the other side of my own mental health challenges.

Four Possible Dangers

Here are four reasons why your year in Israel may present the danger of developing mental health challenges, or of previous mental health challenges worsening. (For the purpose of simplicity, when I write “Yeshiva”, I am referring to both Yeshivas and Seminaries.)

1. Without fully appreciating it, you are leaving the comfort and support of your family. Parents know their kids very well; they can often spot when something is not sitting well with their child and help them through it. As caring and invested as the Rebbeim and staff are in each program, they do not have the type of history with you which your family does. Even if they do spot something, it is unlikely that the Rabbi or staff member would be able to offer support as effectively as your family back home. Additionally, there is a level of wanting to present a certain image to the staff in your Yeshiva, leading you to be less likely to say that you are having a tough time and talking it out. The result is that worries or depressive thoughts could be allowed to fester in your head, rather than being addressed as early as possible.

2. In the intense yeshiva environment, you may end up using negative motivation to keep yourself going instead of using a desire for success. In other words, you might tell yourself to learn so I don’t end up in hell rather than learn so I make it to heaven. Developing tendencies to use negative motivation can lead to beating yourself up emotionally if you don’t hit the standards which can be explicitly or implicitly set in your program. Every sugya you don’t understand, wrong answer to a question in Shiur, or late start to a day becomes another “proof” to yourself that you’re failing. Depression or anxiety disorders thrive off of such mindsets. These disorders don’t just affect your life in Yeshiva: Depression sucks out your energy and motivation for all activities, leading to more “failure” and thus worse depression in a vicious cycle. Anxiety can almost begin to become your default mindset. Instead of just being nervous in front of peers in Shiur, you are training yourself to be nervous about saying the wrong thing in any group setting, which has far-reaching consequences.

3. A Yeshiva is a totally new type of environment; all of the old markers of success and established hierarchies are gone. You can very easily fall into the trap of defining your success not based on your own achievements and progress, but based on comparing yourself to how you perceive your peers are advancing. When these inaccurate and unfair measures are not met, you run the risk (if not inevitability) of slipping into negative self-talk and potentially developing depression.

4. Many students begin their year with a pre-existing mental health challenge that they are totally unaware of due to the stigma and lack of discussion about mental health issues. This lack of discussion also means that you haven’t been taught the warning signs that should alert you to seek help before a problem gets out of hand. A pre-existing condition plus the above challenges is a very dangerous combination.

Solutions and Strategies

Here are some ways to help combat these potential problems:

1. Ask your Yeshiva if they include a session discussing mental health during orientation. In this session, they can explain what mental illness is and identify warning signs to watch out for (in both yourself and peers). The session should identify a qualified staff member for students to turn to with questions. If the program doesn’t have someone on staff, they should explain what resources are available for students and where they can turn to. Having a top-tier Rabbi or staff member as one of the leaders of the discussion is key to normalizing discussing mental health, making it more likely a student will feel comfortable stepping forward if they are struggling. The reality is that discussing mental health concerns with a qualified staff member is not a sign of weakness; it is no different than checking in with your primary care doctor about a concerning physical symptom. Just holding this session during orientation will make that fact loud and clear.

2. While a session described above is ideal, the reality is it may not happen. For this reason, it is important to take the initiative and do your own research about mental health and how to identify warning signs. Here are some examples of signs to look out for in both yourself and peers:

  • Putting yourself down while learning. (I’m so dumb; everyone is moving faster than I am; I never understand Shiur; I’ve never had an original idea in my life.) These are signs of falling self-esteem and should not be considered healthy motivators.
  • Consistent oversleeping or lack of focus. If you find yourself doing either of these, it may not be fair to simply call it laziness; it could be a sign of depression. Even without realizing what’s triggering it, these behaviors can signify a desire to dissociate from challenging or upsetting situations. If you notice this happening with a friend, approach them from a place of concern rather than disappointment and ask how they’ve been feeling (see 3, below). If you notice this with yourself, don’t assume that this is happening because you are failing and not good enough to succeed in the program. Instead, confide in someone you believe will be non-judgmental, allowing you to get your feelings and thoughts off your chest as a first step.
  • Frequently lashing out at others or consistently insulting other people. This often belies a deep self-esteem issue. Since the person doesn’t see themselves as good enough or successful, they try to bring others down with them. Don’t let their comments bother you. Rather, mention their behavior to a Rabbi or staff member who can try to help them work past what is triggering it or can arrange further support.

3. Learn how to talk to a friend you are concerned about. My method is to approach the person and say: “I am here to ask if everything is OK, because you have been doing such and such behaviors, which seems out of character for you. I am only speaking to you because I care about you and want you to be at your best.” This will hopefully take your friend off the defensive. Being specific with the behaviors you have noticed shows that you have been paying attention to them from a place of caring. If they do open up, just listen. If you’re concerned that they might be developing a mental health challenge or could just benefit from further support, urge them to speak to a qualified staff member and offer to accompany them on their way there. This will help take some of the nerve off of seeking help, as well as make it more likely that they will actually go. Additionally, be sure to follow up with your friend so they know you are there for them and want to help however you can.

4. Before leaving for Israel, familiarize yourself with where the best mental health help is, whether it be a qualified staff member at your program or outside help. This will make it much more likely that you actually seek out help should you begin to struggle. You have already done part of the work needed to seek help and maybe more importantly have instilled in yourself the understanding that it is OK to ask for help.

Have An Incredible, Healthy Year!

It is my hope that the guidance above will help ensure that mental health challenges don’t crop up during your year in Israel. In fact, you may even take the opportunity of this unique year to address a pre-existing mental health challenge. Please note that none of these lists should be considered exhaustive by any extent. These are simply observations from my years working in mental health advocacy as well as spending two years at a yeshiva in Israel while battling through mental health challenges.

*A similar version of this piece was originally published on Before Your Year

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