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Supported Academic Learning Aids Students with Problems

Are college-age 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 illness.
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 ( 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 forward.”

In This Issue:

The University Becomes a Little Like Annapolis (and West Point)

Supported Academic Learning Aids Students with Problems

Synagogue/Church Controversy and a Digestive Amulet
Mark University’s Dig at Hippos-Sussita

Golumbic Elected Israel’s 1st European Fellow

Prof. Asher Koriat Is 1st Recipient of Prestigious German Award

Intelligence Corps Wisely Chooses the University

Sweating Before an Audience—Working to Control a Phobia

Michael Wainer—University’s First Vice President for Finance
and Business Development

Prof. Eli Salzberger Elected Next Dean of Law Faculty

University Responds to Tulane Students' Needs

A Look Back at Graduation 2005

33rd Board of Governors Opens with Song and Story

University Honors Five with Honorary Doctorate
First Egyptian to Conduct in Israel Adds Highlight to Ceremony

Social Responsibility Reflected in a Wide Pool

New Recanati Lab Dedicated



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