Mental, Physical, Spiritual: A Call For Mental Healthcare Reform in Gap Year Institutions

By: Shayna Herszage  |  March 24, 2021

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

For many people in Jewish communities, it is a rite of passage to spend a gap year in a yeshiva (for men) or seminary (for women) in Israel before college. However, behind the smiling brochures and cleverly captioned Instagram posts is an often hidden reality: these students, still in their adolescence, are uprooted from everything they have known for the past eighteen years of their lives, placed in a foreign situation in a foreign country, and told to learn Jewish text and thought for the year. While this is often a positive transformative experience, it is more than understandable that seminary and yeshiva students frequently struggle with mental illnesses during their gap year. However, these institutions often are unable or unwilling to address students’ mental illnesses in a healthy manner. In a world that is moving toward acceptance and destigmatization of people with mental illnesses, it is imperative that Israel gap year institutions reform their mental healthcare protocol.

It is not uncommon for Israel gap year institutions to expel their students who struggle with mental illnesses. For example, “Esther”* arrived at her dream seminary on one condition: the administration told her she may not talk to her classmates about mental health. For the first ten days, everything seemed to be going well. However, when her psychiatrist told Esther’s seminary she was struggling with suicidal ideation, the seminary expelled her immediately and sent her home, despite the wishes of the psychiatrist and the student. After only ten days and one “transgression,” the seminary expelled this student with the belief that she was too much of a liability to have in the school, no matter what the medical professional and the student herself said.

Reflecting on the experience, Esther still feels pain and dissatisfaction with what happened. In particular, she is bothered by the fact that she was forced to keep her struggles a secret until she was sent home. “…[I]f they thought it was a good idea to not allow me to mention my mental illnesses and struggles to anyone and they thought that would be good for me, then clearly they don’t know what they are talking about,” Esther stated, looking back on her time in seminary. Esther’s seminary, like many other institutions, believed that ignoring and censoring the presence of mental illness would make the problem go away. However, it should not be a surprise that this does not diminish the problem, rather it further aggravates and stigmatizes mental illness.

Like Esther, “Michal” was also ignored in her struggles. Following the 2015 murder of Ezra Schwartz, Z”L, a gap year student in a yeshiva at the time, Michal began to feel depressed and stayed in bed instead of going to classes. However, Michal struggled alone — her seminary did not check in with her or address the trauma that had occurred. When Michal initiated conversations with administrators about her depression, they steered the conversation away from mental health, and toward her having missed classes.

This invalidation often leads to students being uncomfortable with telling their institutions about their mental health statuses. For example, “Hanna” attended the same seminary as Esther, one year later, and found Israeli mental health resources with the help of her therapist in the United States. These resources helped her with her anxiety and depression, but Hanna made a conscious decision not to disclose these aspects of her health and wellbeing with the seminary. Hanna explained her choice: “[The school] never made it clear what their stance was on mental health … I didn’t really feel comfortable speaking with anyone unless I knew they wouldn’t judge me [or] have a stigma against me.” Hanna realized that many institutions are not understanding of mental illnesses, so she did not tell her school. While Hanna, thankfully, was able to access relevant resources on her own, her experience begs the question: how can dozens, often hundreds, of adolescents be placed under the care of these institutions if the institutions in question perpetuate such strong stigmas that students are uncomfortable with disclosing such an important part of their healthcare?

In addition to the stigma and carelessness characteristic of many institutions, gap year students whose struggles with mental illnesses are disclosed to institution administrators are often treated as if they have breached a disciplinary regulation. When “Ariella” told her seminary administrators that she was seeking resources to help with her depression, anxiety, and eating disorder, the administrators took actions such as placing her under a degrading 72-hour suicide watch of her own peers (despite not expressing suicidal thoughts or behaviors), temporarily banning her from attending classes, and threatening her with an expulsion which was never actualized. Five years later, Ariella looks back on the experience in a negative light: “I was young, scared, and looking for support. Instead of getting that support, I was treated like I had done something wrong. I didn’t drink, I didn’t miss curfew, I didn’t even skip classes until I was banned from attending — my offense was that I struggled with mental illness and sought help. That coldness and isolation was the opposite of the warmth and kindness I needed.”

Like Ariella, Esther experienced the same coldness and sense of feeling like she had broken a rule as she left her seminary following her expulsion. “I was at my lowest point and it felt like they were just pushing me lower. It was very dehumanizing and when I got back after my appointment, no one spoke to me. I felt contagious; they just told me to pack my stuff and leave,” Esther expressed. Instead of showing empathy toward a student struggling with mental illness, the administration deepened her feelings of loneliness by treating her like she had done something wrong to deserve expulsion.

The experiences of Ariella and Esther being treated as rule breakers shed light on the immense levels of mental health stigma rampant in many gap year institutions. Gap year institutions would be unlikely to expel a student for a physical illness; if they did send a student home due to a physical need such as medical treatment, it would likely be with warmth and care. Their treatments of students with mental illnesses should not be any different, but the unjust reality is that Ariella and Esther’s stories are not the only ones of their kind. Several students in gap year programs every year are treated as if their mental illnesses are inherent disciplinary breaches, instead of diagnosable disorders. It is time for these institutions to reform the way they perceive their students and their students’ mental wellbeing, for the sake of the Jewish young adults of the past, present, and future.

Luckily, some institutions have acted in ways that show that they are equipped and willing to support their students in their mental health journeys. For example, “Avi” attended a yeshiva in Israel for two years. During that time, he experienced bouts of depression, and he sought help from his rabbis. Many of the rabbis in his institution had a background in psychology or otherwise had experiences with addressing mental health in productive ways. As such, they understood what Avi needed: they helped him adjust his course schedule to fit his needs, they helped him find a therapist in Israel, and they facilitated Avi’s discussion with his parents about beginning therapy. When Avi reached out to his institution for help, the rabbis considered the needs of the individual student, and they acted accordingly to provide the support he needed.

The case of Avi’s institution provides an image of a likely solution to the problem plaguing many gap year institutions: educate the gap year educators about mental health, and equip them with the background necessary to handle mental health topics in a healthy and productive way. With more in-depth mental health education, gap year educators will not so strongly perpetuate stigmas against mental illness and, as a result, they will not be so careless in the ways they address or ignore mental health struggles among their students.

When a young adult is placed into the trust of a gap year institution, the institution is expected to care for the student and provide the support that is needed — whether that need is physical, emotional, or spiritual. However, while these institutions make strong efforts to support students in their physical needs and spiritual journeys, many of these institutions have exhibited stigma, coldness, and carelessness in the faces of students struggling with their mental health. In order to support the wellbeing of the thousands of young adults who take part in gap year programs in Israel each year, measures must be taken to reform the mental health protocols and perspectives within gap year institutions. Educating administrators and faculty members more rigorously about psychology, mental health, and mental health support will provide these institutions with the knowledge and understanding to address these matters in a way that is healthy and beneficial for the students and their peers. The lack of mental health education in such institutions has already caused trauma and turmoil for countless people with actions that they can not undo; in the present, it is the responsibility of these institutions to ensure that these actions do not happen again.

*Names have been changed