Troubled teens cut off from nature rehab over lack of bomb shelter

Youngsters attending Beit Daniella, near Jerusalem, are forced to meet in a school, far from the horses, dogs, and green hills that are helping them heal

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Interacting with puppies at Beit Daniella, west of Jerusalem. (Courtesy, Beit Daniella)
Interacting with puppies at Beit Daniella, west of Jerusalem. (Courtesy, Beit Daniella)

A unique rehabilitation center for teens with mental illness that uses animal care and exposure to nature as rehabilitation tools has been unable to function as normal since the war began on October 7, because the location lacks a bomb shelter.

Named after Daniella Pardes, who died from anorexia at 14, Beit Daniella gives young people the tools to return to society, while also supporting and guiding parents.

It is based in the Harei Yehuda riding stable and dog kennel in Tzur Hadassah, southwest of Jerusalem, in a green valley adjacent to a nature reserve.

At any one time, Beit Daniella hosts around 16 young people, aged 13 to 18, who suffer from anxiety, depression, trauma and eating disorders.

The combination of war and lack of access to Beit Daniella’s facilities is seriously damaging the teens’ mental states, according to Sarah Malka Eisen, the center’s director of strategic and project development.

Applying for funds to build a bomb shelter through public channels would take far too long, she said, which is why Beit Daniella has launched a campaign to raise $86,330 within three weeks. To date, it has raised just over $30,000.

Youngsters with mental health issues help with the horses at the Havat Harei Yehuda riding stable, where Beit Daniella is based, west of Jerusalem. (Courtesy, Beit Daniella)

The Beit Daniella program, which is supported by government and private funds, combines school study with care for the horses and dogs. The youngsters also maintain a kitchen and prepare meals together, using healthy produce that they have grown.

“At Beit Daniella, we raise emotional awareness and teach our teens that they have the freedom to choose — to choose a healthier way to soothe their deep pain, to choose one of many alternatives instead of their compulsion for self-harm,” said Eisen. “For many of our teens, one of those alternatives is to soothe through their relationship with an unconditionally loving animal.”

Interacting with horses forms part of Beit Daniella’s unique daycare program for troubled teens at the Havat Harei Yehuda horse stable and dog kennel, west of Jerusalem. (Courtesy, Beit Daniella)

In one example, a girl referred to as C to protect her privacy befriended a horse called Lily Rose who had been abused by her previous owners and was anxious around humans and other horses. C was the only person at the stable able to win Lily Rose’s trust enough to ride her.

When C felt overwhelmed, she would often go into Lily Rose’s stall. The two of them shared a secret — they would self-harm when in distress.

C would steer Lily Rose’s head away from the railings when the horse was about to gnaw at the metal and cut herself.

During one episode of deep despair, C ran to the stall, feeling the urge to cut herself with a knife. Lily Rose lowered her head and knocked the knife to the ground.

Many of Beit Daniella’s charges saw their mental health challenges develop during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An analysis of psychiatric diagnoses and drug prescription in adolescents aged 12-17 between 2019 and 2021 — before and during the coronavirus period — found that diagnoses of major depression jumped by 39 percent, anxiety 33%, stress and emotional stress 20%, and eating disorders 56%.

The researchers who produced the study for Maccabi Healthcare Services cited fear of the new unknown illness, prolonged social isolation caused by extended lockdowns and school closures, and reduced physical activity among the responsible factors.

The October 7 Hamas terror onslaught on southern Israel, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, has exacerbated mental health issues, according to Eisen.

Doing schoolwork in small groups is part of Beit Daniella’s program for troubled teens at the Havat Harei Yehuda riding stable and dog kennel, west of Jerusalem. (Courtesy, Beit Daniella)

The state’s decision that the youngsters could not return to the stable until a bomb shelter was built initially left them isolated at home, experiencing flashbacks to the coronavirus period, and returning to negative coping strategies such as self-harm, excessive or inadequate eating, and sleeping through the day while spending the nights awake.

Two days after October 7, staff created a program for students on Zoom. They called all pupils every day to provide additional sessions with therapists and psychiatrists, and to give guidance to parents.

However according to Eisen, Zoom programs could not compensate for the isolation that students felt.

Three students haven’t returned to the program since the war’s outbreak, she said. One was so traumatized by sirens warning of incoming rocket attacks from Gaza that she had to be hospitalized for an exacerbated eating disorder.

When the Education Ministry approved the return of special education schools, the Beit Daniella team was allocated an auditorium in a Tzur Hadassah school, so that participants could meet with one another.

But they cannot visit the stable and dog kennel, which form such an integral part of their rehabilitation.

“The magic of Beit Daniella is that kids who couldn’t consistently attend anything were getting up in the morning and coming to us, at the stable, until the war,” said Eisen. “The healing properties of the program, which are intrinsically linked to the place, its facilities, and intimate contact with the animals, cannot be replicated in a sterile school hall.”

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