Dealing with trauma
Owing to years of war and terror, a large percentage of Israel's population
suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. One organization is trying to do something about it and assist those in need.
Kassam rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip Photo: Nikola Solic / Reuters
Ever since the establishment of the Jewish state, Israeli society has been
contending with an unsettled struggle for its existence – fighting wars and
After a terror attack or the end of a war, most people
breath a sigh of relief and gradually return to their daily lives. A
significant number of others, among them senior citizens, teenagers and
children, remain traumatized. Their recollections of flying bombs and exploding
Kassam rockets shatters both their physical and emotional
wellbeing. Their feeling of personal security is severely damaged,
resulting in fear, trauma and bitter disappointment with regard to the state’s
ability to protect its citizens. Like open wounds, each flashback reinforces
difficult memories, affecting all aspects of the person’s life.
research conducted by NATAL, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and
War, prior to the escalation of rocket attacks in August 2011, shows that
approximately 10 percent of the Israeli population displays symptoms of
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the south, with the cities of Sderot,
Ofakim, Ashkelon, Beersheba and Ashdod that for over a decade have been subject
to constant bombardment, one in three residents experiences post-traumatic
stress on a daily basis.
There is indeed something infectious about PTSD;
it is not even necessary to be directly involved in a traumatic occurrence to
develop some of the symptoms. “Dealing with terrorism as part of one’s routine
through incidents that involve family members, friends or other people from
one’s personal environment increases the vulnerability of individuals with lower
income and education levels, who have fewer resources for coping with it,”
explains NATAL’s hot-line director Sigal Haimov.
Moreover, chronic fear
equally impairs people’s working conditions – almost half of Sderot’s residents
have reported a loss in income due to the need to make regular life-or-death
decisions as a result of living under constant fire. Those who could afford to
leave the city have done so.
“Therefore, we invest in
prevention. We need to be there before it happens and teach them
techniques to manage their course of life under and after extreme conditions,”
emphasizes NATAL’s CEO Orly Gal. “Our mobile unit visits families in their own
homes and checks what practical needs these people have; how often they eat, go
see their doctor, speak to their rabbi, etc.”
Gal believes that in such
cases it is crucial to apply family therapy, as “NATAL’s findings have
demonstrated a connection between the symptoms of children and those of their
parents: The more parents suffer from PTSD, the higher the correlation with
their children being affected by traumatic symptoms as well. The same principle
also works the other way around: If the patient has a strong and supportive
family, he or she is less likely to be afflicted with common grievances and more
likely to recover faster than somebody not actively involved in family life.
When we come [to visit] we also determine who the ‘gatekeepers’ are, like
parents and teachers, and help them explain to others how to behave in
NATAL SEEMS to be the only organization that focuses
exclusively on trauma caused by terror and war. Since its establishment in 1998,
NATAL has provided direct psychological help to more than 130,000 people. Its
various units offer immediate and in-the-field support to people directly and
indirectly affected by military and terrorist aggression.
During times of
emergency NATAL’s toll-free hotline is constantly publicized by news channels
and on the radio. It is the only hotline in the country exclusively serving
victims of national psycho-trauma.
The intensively trained volunteers
offer short- and long-term psychological and emotional assistance in Hebrew,
English, Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish and Amharic.
After the Second
Lebanon War in 2006, children increasingly began calling the hotline and
organizers perceived a strong need to establish a separate children’s hotline
that has since received international acknowledgement, having been accepted as
an affiliate member of Child Helpline International.
send our experts abroad to share our professionally developed methods with their
international colleagues. Some of them were sent to France immediately after the
terrorist attack on Otzar Hatorah school in Toulouse, where they were coaching
French psychiatrists and helping to take care of the victims and their
families,” Gal recalls proudly.
“For us it’s not work. We really believe
in what we do. If we manage to help a victim of terror and war to overcome their
problems, it is as if the person has come back to life.”
recent “quiet,” NATAL has found that nearly 30 percent of adults feel
threatened. Another 23% take anti-depression and anxiety drugs to facilitate
living as much of a normal life as abnormal conditions will allow.
demonstrated above, PTSD symptoms are not somatic, but rather
psychological. During periods of relative calm, there is an increase in
civilians seeking professional counseling as the time of tranquillity allows
them to “hear” their anxious thoughts and realize that they are often related to
traumatic events, leading them to seek more comprehensive psychological
treatment. There are people whose symptoms awaken years after the incident, and
it is impossible to predict when they will erupt.
To foster stronger
social inclusion of PTSD patients, NATAL’s Clinical Unit and Social Therapeutic
Club offer activity groups and workshops for art, cooking, music, dance,
ceramics, etc. Other projects are aimed at treating discharged soldiers and
former prisoners of war and working on their psychological health by improving their natural
coping resources and body-mind connection via outdoor activities, creativity,
empowerment and peer counseling. By sharing their experiences and mutually
assisting one another, veterans achieve a strong basis for further successful
With the purpose to accomplish even better and faster results,
the NGO collaborates very closely with other organizations. The list of
NATAL’s helpers ranges from the municipalities, to Magen David Adom, to the IDF
About 6,400 PTSD patients receive professional supervision at
the Sderot municipal mental health center. Some 3,500 children and 500 teachers
and staff learn coping tools through the local schools. The Resilience Center
treats about 400 people each year, most of them children and teenagers. They are
taught relaxation exercises through a psychological, just-for-them puppet show
and by using specially designed anti-stress balls, both of which were generously
donated by the German Embassy and the Philadelphia Jewish Federation.
WORRISOME reality is that 12% of the children of Sderot have severe trouble
functioning, 41% suffer from over-excitation and 20% display all the symptoms of
post-traumatic stress. This is the result of their chronically threatening
environment; most of them have been experiencing multiple direct exposures to
missile attacks from Gaza for the past 11 years.
Fifty percent of
Sderot’s children are emotionally exhausted and constantly relive the
“My two younger children refuse to leave the house. They have
problems concentrating, they don’t want to go to school and are afraid even to
go to the bathroom alone or take showers by themselves,” reports a single mother
of three from Sderot.
Such children are always extremely alert, ready for
danger, and every little noise shakes them up. Because of the ongoing aggression
by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, whose goals are to murder and destroy, these
children are forced to spend more time in bomb shelters than in playgrounds.
They don’t want to play, but rather withdraw inside themselves and refuse to
maintain any contact with their existing environment.
After more than 11
years of living in the most heavily bombed city in the world, over 71% of
Sderot’s children suffer from at least one symptom of PTSD, whether it’s
flashbacks, bed-wetting, the feeling of constant, paralyzing fear, nightmares,
etc., while in the meantime, they continue to hope that one day they can wake
under a permanently rocket-free sky.