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Choosing The Best Program For My Son With A Drug Problem

Or My Daughter With An Eating Disorder

By: David Mandel  

Many words are spoken and written on the importance of a quality yeshiva education for our children. Understandably so. Matching the right yeshiva for your son or daughter unquestionably ranks as one of the most important decisions you will be making as a parent. 

With, bli ayin hara, 150,000 Jewish children in yeshivos and day schools throughout the country, these decisions continue as children graduate high schools and select, with varying degrees of parental input, a yeshiva\seminary in New York, Lakewood or Yerushalayim. The latter is often considered a rite of passage for at least one year, if not shana bet and more. 

This is the time of year parents and their high school graduating sons and daughters are busily considering their options. By Purim, most of these choices have been made by the respective yeshivas, students and parents. Purim, for the high school senior on his way to Israel come this Ellul, can be an especially relaxing and enjoyable experience. Contrast this for parents with a child with special issues. How should they go about selecting the right yeshiva or program? For the sixteen year-old boy with a drug problem, for the seventeen year old girl with a history of serious eating disorders, or for the eighteen year old with a severe learning or social deficit, how does a parent determine which post-high school program is best? Or, for that matter, do they exist? 

Even with a very conservative estimate that 3% of high schoolers have such problems, this accounts for a sizeable portion of our community. When you consider the gamut of serious problems and disorders teenagers may suffer from, including depression, bi-polar and anxiety disorders, this becomes a matter of interest and concern to many, many families every year. 

For many families, Purim is an easy Yom Tov to celebrate but for the family whose son has a drug use history or a daughter with an alcohol problem, Purim becomes one of the most feared days of the year. This family’s celebration begins when Yom Tov ends and their son or daughter made it through the day safely. 

In recent years, a spate of specialty post-high school yeshiva programs has been established, with a focus on adolescent boys and girls with drug and behavior problems. What was once the purview of only two or three such programs, there now seem to be one or two new programs opening every year in the United States and Israel. This is a good trend in response to our community’s increased awareness and openness, albeit reluctantly, to confront these issues. 

Choosing the right post-high school yeshiva for a son or daughter with special needs is a complex process. Whereas for the majority of children, we choose the yeshiva where the best learning can occur, mixed with a little “name recognition” to strengthen the shidduch prospects, the decision process for a son or daughter with problems involving drugs, alcohol, anorexia or depression includes a wholly different set of criteria. In the large and even in the small yeshivas, the “regular bochur” is expected to be on his own. This bochur selects a chavrusa, he learns bekius much of the day and fends for himself to find Shabbos meals. Essentially, these eighteen year olds are required and expected to be self-directed and live quasi-independent lives within a group setting. 

We require just the opposite environment for the seventeen year old with a history of special problems. For the thousands of parents in New York, Chicago, L.A., Belgium, London and elsewhere who every year have to make these difficult choices with their children, permit me to delinate severn criteria for parents to consider: 

The first priority for this young man or woman should be safety and protection from harm. This should be coupled with a structured environment to watch over these children to prevent them from hurting their minds and bodies, as they have been prone to do. Their ability to learn in a yeshiva, or even for this boy or girl to be Shomer Shabbos, may not be as essential if their life is in danger. Shmiras Shabbos and being Shomrei Torah U’mitzvot takes on a secondary role to safety from harm. 

A third important factor is the specialized services that can be offered within or outside the yeshiva. Is there a well-credentialed person on staff to provide counseling and crisis intervention? Does the yeshiva\seminary have an affiliation with a mental health professional or a treatment milieu that students are referred to, as needed? 

The fourth criteria for parents in search of a specialized program to look for is a mashpiah, a mentor. There has been much emphasis of late on the important role of the mashpia/mashgiach in the Kollel. This is all the more needed in our examples of young men or women that are no longer Shomer Shabbos or those with serious drinking problems. 

The mashpia serves in the multiple roles of parent, protector and mentor. And in most situations, all these roles will be required at varying intervals. In the example of a seventeen year old with an eating disorder, medical management becomes the priority and so the mashpia takes on an added role of conferring with the physician and mental health therapist. In the example of a young man who is a loner, a mashpia knows to search him out, to lend an ear and to facilitate his entry into appropriate social environments. 

The fifth criteria is size. We don’t want this teenager to be lost in a big crowd; conversely, we would like to see this seventeen year old in a program which can provide various options of friends and behaviors to choose from through the course of his stay. Yeshivas and treatment programs in Israel and the US with a specialty serving these adolescents range in size from ten to one hundred. Some new yeshivas and programs may have only a handful of boys or girls, while others serve fifty, a hundred or more. Within the context of size, the question is how well will your son receive the individual services he requires. 

It is worthwhile to note that some yeshivas/seminaries in Israel have a program within a program. For example, a seminary with 100 girls may have a specialized program for 15 girls with learning disabilities, problems with self-esteem or those lagging in social skills. 

We have, thus far, not emphasized at all the chinuch and learning this yeshiva/school may provide our children, or for that matter, the level of religiosity. This is a fundamental aspect of our approach. The young man or woman first has to be in the right frame of mind to be interested in (or open to) receiving learning. By meeting the child where s/he is, we must first respond to their most pressing need: that is to protect them from further harm. 

My colleagues and I at Ohel have been witness to remarkable transformations in young men and women who “went in” with a spate of serious problems - some even life-threatening - and “came out” of these yeshivas/programs, one or two years later, a significantly different and better person. I’ve spoken to scores of such young men and women during their year in Israel, as well as several years after they’ve “returned”. They often describe their life’s defining moment as occurring during this one year in a post-high school program. 

When you and your child disagree on which yeshiva program s/he wants to attend – after all, he wants to be with his friends and those may be the very people you wish to keep him from - you don’t have to fight this battle alone. You and your son or daughter will be meeting with the Rosh Yeshiva, mashpia or director of the various programs you’re considering. Enlist their assistance throughout the interview process. While the mashpia longs for the good challenge, (much of this work is rooted in kiruv principles), their interest is to work with young men and women and families who are inclined to have an interest in succeeding, even when child and parent are in conflict. 

We must also caution parents who, in their desperation, enthusiastically enroll their child in the first yeshiva program that accepts their child. There are inherent risks with this if your child has a problem(s) that requires a specialized focus that cannot be provided by this program. We also include, herein, parents who “hide” their child’s problems in the hope of getting the best possible shidduch. This is a complex, though understandable, situation, involving stigma in shidduchim within our community, which my colleagues at Ohel addressed in greater length in the November ‘04 issue of the Jewish Observer. 

It would be important for parents to personally visit the program, speak to other students and, if possible, other parents. Parents are often willing to share their experiences with like-minded people. This brings us to the sixth criteria: You can consult with or hire a professional to assist you in screening the programs. Though you are in need of a solution, you are interviewing the program as much as they are interviewing your son or daughter. Once your son is in the yeshiva program, you can also consider retaining a case manager” to assist you throughout the year, since your son\daughter is thousands of miles away in another state, in Yerushalayim, Tzfat or Beit Shemesh. The case manager becomes your added eyes and ears. S/he can serve to escort your son/daughter to his weekly treatment sessions, be his mentor and assume any role necessary to ease this transition and assure their safety. 

The seventh and final rule of thumb is follow-up. Approximately three months before your son or daughter is planning to return home, establish a follow-up plan. What services will she require to maintain her, hopefully, good physical and mental health? Is he returning to a yeshiva, to a job, to a therapist? Hopefully, when he returns next year for Pesach or at the end of the zman, he will come back healthier and in a better frame of mind than when he left. A team of specialists has invested their koches in him – parents, rebbeim, therapists. We have to have a sustainable plan to keep him on this good path for the subsequent year, to plant his feet as he prepares to be on his own. Such a transition plan should be developed with a mental health therapist in your community or with an organization like Ohel or other local social service provider. 

Between this writing, Erev Purim 5765 and when the new Elul Zman 5766 begins, several hundred young men and women and their parents will newly occupy this broad classification of ”help – I’m desperate for a solution. For some, it will have developed gradually, beginning as early as the sixth grade. With others it can occur literally overnight, as they experiment for the first time with drugs on Purim or Pesach break, given to them by a good friend. 

There exists a spate of preventive efforts underway in many yeshivas and day schools to address these concerns. They range from the oblique discussions with third graders on safety, explaining healthy living and diet with sixth graders, how to behave properly at Bar Mitzvahs with eighth graders to an open and provocative discourse on drug usage with high school juniors and seniors. “Chanoch lana’ar al pi darko” should incorporate preparation for the range of problems children may encounter, which unfortunately includes these uncomfortable issues of children seriously hurting their bodies and minds with alcohol, drugs and food deprivation. These discussions can be led by a qualified mental health professional in a classroom setting within the appropriate boundaries established by the yeshiva. The indoctrination by parents, mechanchim and mechanchot early and consistently sprinkled with the occasional mental health professional, when appropriate, will hopefully result in fewer children becoming adolescents with behaviors requiring a specialized response. 

Who’s to say that a mid-life crisis must occur when you’re in your 40’s or 50’s? Why shouldn’t we accept that it can occur in some people when they’re sixteen and be just as understanding and forgiving with them as with the man who becomes bored with life and changes careers suddenly when he’s forty-five? There have been more deaths in our community, of young men and women, ages sixteen to twenty-five, due to drug overdose, severe anorexia and depression than people in our community generally understand. Several have received widespread publicity, while with others the cause of death is an aneurism or heart attack. The best antidote is constant open discussions, which forms the basis of prevention. 

SUMMARY 
For the parent in search of a yeshiva\seminary program for their son or daughter with special needs, be it a drug history, eating disorder, depression or other special needs, we have outlined seven major factors to consider. Which yeshiva program will provide the best, in combination: safety and protection from harm, a structured environment, specialized services such as counseling, a mashpia, size, case managing/mentoring and follow-up transitional services when s/he returns home. The transition back home is especially important to focus on to sustain your child’s progress. 

For the thousands of boys and girls, ages sixteen to eighteen, and their families in large and small Jewish communities throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, the post high school year - and at times it is the last year of high school - finding the right program may turn out to be one of the most important choices the parent will be making for their child who is involved in making poor choices. 

All our children should experience similar opportunities for learning, independence and religious exposure. For the relatively small percentage, but significant number of youth who face these experiences with extra challenges, parents following these guidelines will, with HaShem’s help, achieve the positive results they had always davened and wished for their son or daughter.

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  • No Complaints...
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  • 75th Anniversary of the Horrors of Kristallnacht...
  • Etta at OHEL Dedicates Fourth Group Home...
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  • A Slice of Home: Through the eyes of a foster child...
  • Ask Sarah: Newly Married & Worried About Divorce...
  • As New Year Approaches, N.Y. Community Devastated by Hurrica...
  • Oniomania: A Look into the Minds of Compulsive Shoppers...
  • Teens and Saturday Nights: A Parenting Approach...
  • The Loss of a Dream...
  • Help! My Adolescent is Out of Control!...
  • Protecting Our Children: Does a Bakery Have a Soul?...
  • Who Am I? Standing at the precipice of death longing for sta...
  • Nobody Quite Knew What to do With Yaakov...
  • Understanding the Coordination between Early Intervention an...
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  • Life for Frum Women in domestic violence shelters...
  • United We Stand: The Impact of Disabilities on Marriage...
  • Unique Needs of Children in Foster Care...
  • The Success Story that Finally Happened...
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