Learning Aids Students with Problems
youth suffering from mental and personality disorders, like
mania-depression, schizophrenia, or obsessive compulsive disorder,
doomed never to have a higher education?
Prof. Yehezkel Taler, director of the University’s Center for
Rehabilitation Research and Human Development, recognized that many
such youngsters have the cognitive ability to gain a degree, even a
graduate degree. Together with some others, he raised the idea of
conducting a special project to work with students suffering from
such disorders. The result is a 3-year pilot program called
“Supported Academic Education,” sponsored by the Ministry of Health,
the National Security Institute, and Reut, a non-profit organization
for mental health rehabilitation, being carried out at the Haifa
University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Of the two, the
project here on Mt. Carmel is conducted on-campus.
Responsible for the day-to-day operation of Haifa’s Supported
Education program is Liora Cassif-Weissberg, a highly experienced
social worker who earned both her B.A. (Psychology and B.A. Honors
Program) and her M.A. (social work) here. Having worked extensively
with new immigrant students and with people with mental disorders,
she proved to be the right choice for a project that had no
precedent in Israel, although such programs are well established in
the United States.
“There are no simple solutions,” Liora told Focus. “I am
continuously covering new grounds and introducing something new
based on an evolving learning process. I myself know so much more
now than when I started.”
The pilot project is now in its second year, and 15 University of
Haifa students, both undergraduate and graduate students, one of
whom studying towards a Ph.D. degree, participated this past year.
Two students had become ill while serving in the Israel Defense
Force that recognized their disability. All participants had to be
vetted by the Ministry of Health and were required to be in therapy
with a psychiatrist or psychologist while in the program. Most take
medication to alleviate extreme physical manifestations of their
The project’s objective, according to Cassif-Weissberg, is to
overcome severe difficulties in three main learning areas that these
students encounter, regardless of the particular mental illness. The
hope is that with the appropriate support, they can complete their
studies, earn a degree, and become productive members of society.
The first area to mention is learning strategy: How to learn
effectively, concentrate, summarize the material, manage time, cope
with pressure, write exams, etc.
The second area to which Liora and her team pay much attention is
emotional and social support, as this particular program provides
the only organized support environment to most participants, without
which they are quite lost.
The third challenge is practical help in dealing with the
administration and bureaucracy. Most program participants need
pragmatic help in communicating with their lecturers, with the
faculty, with the Dean’s office, and many require guidance on how to
present their problem to the administrative staff.
Each participant is assigned a mentor, who works with the
participant on these difficulties for four hours a week throughout
the year, Liora explained. The mentors, usually social work or
psychology students, first receive training in how to deal with
their challenging task. Liora oversees the mentors’ work, but also
maintains direct contact with the students themselves, as well as
with their psychiatrists, especially if there has been any radical
change in a participant’s behavior.
Each participating student has an individual support plan built
specially in accordance with his or her personal needs. If required,
a participant can also receive tutorial help provided by the Dean of
Students Office, which, according to Liora, cooperates
whole-heartedly with the plan and provides much practical support.
An important aspect to point out is that most rehabilitation
frameworks confine their efforts to simple work tasks, which do not
suit several people with mental difficulties, who with the right
support, are can succeed in university studies, graduate, and find
work suitable to their capabilities.
As project director in Haifa, Liora also communicates with her
colleague who runs a similar project in Jerusalem, and with a
steering committee that overlooks the plan. The members of this
committee are specialists of the Health Ministry, the National
Security Institute, Reut organization, and Prof. Taler. Liora adds
that the Brookdale Institute, a key Israeli center for applied
research on human services, is currently conducting a study of the
program as a whole.
Does she feel the project is helping these students?
“I am positive that it is helping,” she exclaims without any
hesitation. “Even those who had to be hospitalized for a time,” she
said, “have returned to their studies. Most of the participants have
become more committed to their studies and more effective. They
invest a lot in their progress, and I believe that this will
continue even after they graduate.”
Cassif-Weissberg mentions that the word is being spread around, and
it is likely that additional Israeli universities will offer this
plan as well, another sign that Taler’s initiative is bearing fruit.
She is sure that there are many more than 15 students at the
University who suffer from mental and personality disorders. The
problem, she says, is how to find them. Although several
participants walked in after reading an announcement about the
project, which is free of charge, most students, she said, won’t
admit to such personality or mental problems. “I’d like to encourage
additional students to approach me directly, by email (email@example.com)
or by phone (050-6819 209), and I promise to handle each case with
the utmost discretion”.
“Such disorders are still viewed as a stigma”, she noted, “but it
should be seen as a challenge, not a shame.” She would like the
project to develop into a regular service at the University, just as
treating learning disabilities has. “Certain students with such
disorders succeed at university without our help as well; however, I
believe that they could do even better by working with us.”
Reflecting on her two years with the project, this young mother,
Liora Cassif-Weissberg remarks that “even many mental health
professionals are not aware of the special difficulties of some
students, and of the effort required to integrate them into the
community, while drawing the maximum on their potential. What we are
doing here at the University with this project is another step
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