Taking Care of One’s Mental Well-Being While Studying in Israel

Most students don’t come to Yeshiva and Seminary in Israel to study. Instead, they come to find themselves or to change themselves.

The problem, however, is that while most Yeshiva and Seminary students in this period of emerging adulthood presume that their very presence in Yeshiva or Seminary will stir them into becoming someone who is more learned, more observant, and more spiritually streamlined– the year in Israel can – for some young people – be a risky emotional cocktail

What Students Mentally Bring with Them to Israel and its Potential Impact

Like most beverages, life contains a mix of different ingredients, such that the life journey of an 18-year-old young man or woman has already had its fair rollercoaster of influences and emotions. What this means is that by the time a young man or woman arrives in Israel for Yeshiva or Seminary, they already carry within them a blend of different elements that they have adopted or absorbed from home, school, camp, community, society, and the media.

In some cases, this blend is balanced and harmonious, and when a student leaves their home and comes to Israel, the new ideas and experiences that they encounter do not conflict with who they are. On the contrary, they serve to enrich the physical and spiritual mix that is now their new selves.

However, there are occasions when the mix of the new — on top of the base ingredients which make up this young person — can lead to the concoction of a highly dangerous cocktail.

Of course, this is rarely if ever done deliberately. Still, the results of mixing together ingredients without considerable reflection on the chemical makeup of the cocktail, and without sufficient pause for thought about the spiritual metabolism of the consumer, leads to the same outcome: disaster.

The problem is that none of us carry a clear list of the ‘live’ emotional and spiritual ingredients that are what makes us who we are. So, while it is commonplace to avoid giving food to someone with allergies which may contain a product that is dangerous for them, the absence of such a list means that one’s year in Israel may be a gateway to young men and women consuming emotional and spiritual ingredients that are triggering. Simply put, within a short period of time, and even while attending a relatively ‘tame’, ‘solid’ or ‘safe’ learning environment, a seemingly mellow individual can undergo a metamorphosis and become a dangerous mix of ideas and emotions which they don’t know and haven’t been trained how to handle.

The Gift of Technology 

Admittedly, the situation today is better than it was in previous decades. This is because in the pre-cell phone era, Yeshivas and Seminaries were truly “total institutions,” while today, the cell phone enables young men and women studying in Yeshiva and Seminary to maintain regular contact with their family back home. What this means is that if they are blessed with a stable home, they are then able to remain more emotionally and spiritually anchored even while in Israel. From the perspective of spiritual growth, this is often an impediment, but in terms of mental health, this can be highly beneficial.

Still, not every institution permits smartphones, nor does their usage provide anything more than a beneficial tool to help families maintain regular contact with their sons or daughters. Moreover, in cases where there is instability in a family, the mixing of toxic messages from home with alternative messages from the Yeshiva or Seminary can be very confusing. Simply put, whatever technology a young man or woman possesses, and whichever Yeshiva or Seminary they attend, there is always a risk that they can be shaken or stirred by ideas which they learn, or by experiences they have, which can result in a significant mental health crisis.

And this brings me back to my first point, because most students don’t come to Yeshiva and Seminary in Israel to study. Instead, they come to find themselves, or to change themselves – which means that there is an expected level of “flipping out” (taking on more religious observances in a short amount of time) that parents expect of their son or daughter. The problem is that the line between healthy growth and unhealthy flipping out is very thin. So how do we know when it has been crossed?

Warning Signs for Unhealthy Growth

The short answer is that given people are different, a comprehensive set of signs is impossible to produce. However, here are some things to bear in mind:

1. If a Yeshiva or Seminary student was previously able to emotionally self-regulate but is struggling to do so, this is a warning sign.

2. If they were in regular contact with family and have suddenly ceased to be in contact with them for a prolonged period of time, this is a warning sign.

3. If they begin doing things or saying things that they cannot explain to others, this is a warning sign.

4. If they become very aggressive or very defensive about some of their choices, this is a warning sign.

5. If there is clear evidence that they are not looking after their physical well-being, this is a major warning sign.

6. If they speak as if they are under the sway of one of their male or female teachers, this is a major warning sign.

Why to Look Out

It should be clear that while I was asked to write about “taking care of one’s mental well-being while studying in Israel,” I have referred to Yeshiva & Seminary students and not spoken to them directly. And the reason for this is both incredibly simple, and incredibly scary: Someone who is experiencing mental health challenges doesn’t always know that they are experiencing mental health challenges – in much the same measure that someone who has consumed a dangerous cocktail isn’t always aware that they have done so.

Unfortunately, the age of self-help has led many to think that mental health challenges can be self-diagnosed and self-treated. But this is simply false. As the Gemara (Brachot 5b) teaches us: “a prisoner cannot release themselves from prison,” meaning that just as we need others to release us from a physical place of restriction, we also need others to help us when we are experiencing mental health challenges.

And this is why every family who sends their son and daughter to Israel needs a “what if” plan – not because such crises are likely, but because if they do occur, thinking about how to address them once they’ve occurred is often unfortunately too late.

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Rav Johnny Solomon
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