Sending children off for their gap year is a tremendous milestone. For many students, it is an exciting opportunity that will allow them to explore new horizons, gain independence and embark on once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But for many students, the prospect of their gap year can fill them with tremendous anxiety, especially if they are already dealing with other mental and emotional stresses.
According to Dr. Alex Bailey, “One of the beautiful things about the gap year is this opportunity to begin to individuate. To begin to separate and develop their own sense of self. And that creates a lot of questions.”
Recognizing that need among gap year students, Dr. Bailey reached out to the yeshivot and midrashot to discuss how best to make sure students get the mental health support they need in order to successfully navigate their gap year and beyond.
No stranger to this demographic, Dr. Bailey trained in the United States as a school and child clinical psychologist, splitting his time between his private practice and area high schools, including Frisch and TABC. Before making aliyah, he served as the assistant principal for student services at the Fuchs Mizrachi Stark High School in Cleveland, Ohio.
He said that two very important shifts have occurred in the last few years. With mental health support becoming far more open and accepted, parents are readily acknowledging that their children need to continue therapeutic care during their gap year. The second is that the yeshivot and midrashot are also acknowledging the need to be prepared to accept those kids who need that type of support while they are studying with them.
“The yeshivot and midrashot have become very proactive and really willing and able to look for outside help for their students,” he shared.
With a strong mental health network firmly in place, students have the ability to continue their therapy once they arrive in Israel. Even if students are under psychiatric care and taking medication, Dr. Bailey is set up with a network of psychiatrists so that there is no lapse in therapeutic care from the moment they set foot in Israel.
Dr. Bailey maintains two offices conveniently located in Jerusalem and Modiin. Although COVID-19 forced him to resort to telehealth, he does feel that it has proved to be a valid alternative that can be very effective.
He recommends reaching out to him or the school either ahead of the school year or as they see their child needs help, to ensure the student has support as soon as it is needed.
Sometimes parents and students prefer to see how things go for the first couple of months, after which either the schools or the parents will reach out to Dr. Bailey asking for extra help and support. “They want to sort of stretch their wings and try and see how they can manage and then if they still need somebody that’s typically where things will start to pop up after about a month or so,” he noted.
Gap-year students who require mental health support are often facing issues of depression and anxiety. “They have to navigate this sort of autonomous existence with stressors they have never experienced before,” he said. These students often feel stressed as they attempt to navigate new relationships, figure out how to manage their year and think about what comes next in their lives.
“They’ve been in school with the same friends and social circles for so many years and all of a sudden they are thrown into very new situations that creates a real feeling of anxiety for a number of students,” commented Dr. Bailey.
Dr. Bailey added that students will start exploring questions like What are my values? Are they the same as how I grew up? What are new things that I am being exposed to? What are my beliefs? What do I want for myself? “And they are sort of forced to think about this for themselves for the first time in their lives.” He says many students use this time in therapy to explore their own beliefs and value system and bounce their questions off of somebody who is objective.
ADHD is another issue that affects students coming to Israel for their gap year and can crop up in unexpected ways. Because yeshivot and midrashot are far less structured than high school, students must rely on their own skills and strategies in order to maintain focus. And that does not always go as they had hoped.
Sometimes he sees students seeking therapy to help deal with family changes including divorce, family restructurings and major moves that can bring on their own types of stressors. And Dr. Bailey will help them process these changes during their year in Israel.
Besides young adults, Dr. Bailey’s other practice specialty is the young married population. Prior to making aliyah, Dr. Bailey took on additional training in this area to help pre- and post-marriage couples adjust to their new reality of being part of a union. Some of the issues that he deals with include issues of communication, negotiation and effectively dealing with family of origin.
“You learn how to negotiate around your family. And all of a sudden you are married and you have to take into account somebody whose family of origin is entirely different from yours,” he shared. Dr. Bailey explained that as you grow up in your family with its own unique quirks and traits, you become who you are. Then you take two people, who are now living together and have to learn how to interpret each other and their behaviors. He works with young couples to help them understand how best to communicate as they embark on their new journey of “couplehood.” He says communication is one of the biggest challenges young couples face, whether it is communicating around finances and arguments, communicating around intimacy or even communicating around challenges concerning in-laws.
Therapy, he said, isn’t an indication that something is wrong with you, and there should be no stigma attached to it because the stigma keeps people from getting the support they need. “Therapy is about helping to negotiate the challenges of life. And I think that everybody at some point in their lives can benefit from it in some way,” he concluded.