Israeli teens pay a high psychiatric toll when raised in conditions of terror and geopolitical conflict, according to a study conducted by Tel Aviv University and Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya psychologists.
The acute suffering of children, especially in the South, forced to spend much of their summer running to safe rooms as Hamas rockets fall is well known. But Prof. Michelle Slone of TAU and Dr. Anat Shoshani of Herzliya found in their report, just published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, that Israeli youths exposed to protracted conflict suffer far higher levels of anxiety, phobia, fear, depression, obsessive-compulsive symptoms and paranoia than their counterparts in the US.
They carried out what they described as the largest-ever cross-sectional empirical study of its kind to assess the psychological condition of youths exposed to terrorism, missile attacks, war, forced residential relocations and military operations over 14 years compared to a period of relative quiet.
“This was a large and logistically complicated study conducted over a long period under dynamic, violent conditions,” said Slone, director of TAU’s Laboratory for Resilience in Childhood. “Whereas previous studies on conflict environments have focused on the frequency of post-traumatic symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder, our research pointed to varied emotional, cognitive and behavioral symptoms, as well as a broad spectrum of clinical and sub-clinical pathologies.”
The researchers studied annual samples from the same cities, geographical regions and schools throughout the country.
They were assessed for exposure to “political life events” and for psychiatric symptoms.
Nearly 9,000 Jewish youth aged 12 to 17, and evenly divided by gender, were assessed in eight exposure periods: pre-intifada (1998-2000); intifada peak (2001-2003); intifada recession (2004); missile attacks on southern Israel and the 2006 Lebanon War (2005-2006); peak missile attacks (2006-2007); Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009); and a period of global terrorism in 2010-2011.
The research showed that over this 14-year period a significant number of Israeli adolescents suffered from severe psychiatric symptoms and disorders.
Adolescent girls reported even higher levels of psychiatric pathologies than adolescent boys, and the differential by gender increased according to direct exposure to conflict. This finding coincides with consistent findings of higher levels of pathology among girls than boys in wars and armed conflict.
“Growing up in South Africa under the apartheid regime made me particularly sensitive to the effects of political conflict and armed conflict on children,” said Slone. “Our study suggests that adolescents exposed to high levels of protracted political violence form a high-risk group for specific and non-specific pathologies.”
According to the researchers, insecure and conflict-ridden social environments disrupt the critical tasks normally completed during adolescence, including the establishment of personal identity and the search for both self-autonomy and a role in society. As a result of her findings, Slone believes Israel’s public health and education systems should address the needs of the nation’s at-risk adolescent population.
“While there is no ‘quick fix’ for the significant psychological distress that becomes part of young people’s lives in conditions of chronic violence and insecurity, a cost-effective, universal, and controlled therapeutic strategy must be implemented in schools,” said Slone.
“The educational system, which touches all children and adolescents across all demographic divides, stands in a unique position to institute preventive interventions that strengthen children’s resilience and ability to cope with the violent environment in which they live.”
Since completing the study, the TAU professor has been examining the efficacy of school-based, teacher-delivered intervention programs.