Israeli mental health center uses butterflies to help kids

Science and Health

Dr. Udi Ohayon, a psychotherapist and art therapist at the school at the Shahaf School at Bat Yam’s Abarbanel Mental Health Center loves butterflies. An idea struck him that the teens at the hospital might benefit watching the colorful insects, which could serve as a therapeutic tool. 

In fact, his unique “butterfly garden” at the 79-year-old hospital has become the young patients’ a favorite place to be and improved their emotional state. 

“I was looking for a way to combine my love for butterflies with mental therapy, and I discovered that butterflies and what they symbolize have a huge impact on mentally challenged youth. Over the years, as I have noticed many butterflies frequenting the hospital grounds, I approached the administrative director of the center, Ziv Eini, and showed him pictures of dozens of butterflies I had photographed on the hospital grounds. I suggested to him that I set up a butterfly garden in the newly established youth complex.”

The move necessitated changing the vegetation that was there, moving trees and planting new vegetation that attracts butterflies, Ohayon said. “We established an open and ecological garden that allows the butterflies to come and go as they please. The garden attracted species and types of butterflies new and became active and full of life.”

Butterfly garden established was a huge success

Udi Ohayon photographed in his butterfly garden (credit: Dana Reuveni)

The butterfly garden that was established was a huge success not only among the butterflies, but also among the patients and staff and fascinated the entire mental health center staff. The garden and the butterflies have become the inspiration for many activities – a fascinating learning and experience topic in the photography classes held at Shahaf School and a leading topic in the art and nature classes.

The art teacher initiated a project inspired by the garden in which the patients and staff members created their own special butterfly in a piece of art. A Butterfly Garden News board was established by the pupils as part of the work-habits workshop that operates at the school. They made key holders in the shape of 3D printed butterflies. The Purim carnival was also inspired by the butterfly garden, and the staff dressed up as butterflies.

“The emotional contents that arise in the clinic are amazing; through the butterflies, the kids manage to express feelings and share. One of the children treated here at the center suffers from anxiety and withdraws, and the butterfly garden is one of the few places where he’s he is willing to go. A girl suffering from severe depression draws encouragement from the butterflies and said during the course that ‘if the small and delicate butterfly is able to wander like that and overcome all the hardships on the way, then so can I.’ ” 

Another boy who suffers from low self-esteem and regards himself as stupid is proud of the knowledge he has acquired about butterflies and likes to present it in the butterfly garden to anyone who is willing to listen. This contributes a lot to his self-image, Ohayon said. 

“A youth who faced behavioral problems, impulsivity and difficulty around authority and boundaries realized that if he wanted to meet butterflies in the garden and not chase them away, he must respect their space, respect the rules of behavior in the garden and connect with the soft, enabling and delicate parts of his soul, something that helped promote the therapeutic goals with him,” Ohayon added. 

The unique butterfly garden also gained the interest of one Israel’s and the world’s leading butterfly researchers, Dovi Binyamini, thanks to the nettle tree of a unique breed that established a colony in Abarbanel. 

It migrates in the spring and beginning of summer to Cyprus, Turkey and Europe, lays eggs there and the larvae metamorphose. In a unique phenomenon, the butterflies that are born return to Israel in the fall. 

This is a unique phenomenon, said Binyamini and Tel Aviv University Prof. Hava Yablonka, with whom he is conducting research at Abarbanel to understand butterfly navigation, always returning every year to the same places in Israel where they spent the winter.