Israel's mental health service should 'brace for surge in demand'

The professor emeritus of Psychology at the University of Haifa said the pandemic would have a knock-on effect on mental health.

Mental health [illustrative] (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Mental health [illustrative]
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
Israel's mental health services "will have to brace for a surge in referrals of post-coronavirus cases" as the country comes out of the coronavirus lockdown, a professor at the University of Haifa has said.
Given the unprecedented nature of the lockdown and the uncertainty it has caused, it is to be expected that some Israelis will experience feelings of distress, according to Dr. Eli Somer, a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus of psychology at the  University of Haifa’s School of Social Work.
The Labor and Social Services Ministry reported in May that four domestic violence-related suicides have been recorded in Israel since the start of the pandemic, but Somer warned that as the country starts to move beyond the pandemic it could see a new wave of mental illness cases.
“Most people are happy to resume their former lives and are resilient enough to emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown unscathed," Somer said. "However, many have no former lives to return to."
Among the more vulnerable are those who have lost their jobs or businesses to the economic impact of the lockdown, or those who lost loved ones to COVID-19 or were in intensive care themselves.
"These individuals will have to process their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and grief symptoms," Somer said.
"Another vulnerable group is those with pre-existing mental health problems. Some of them may have experienced an exacerbation of their anxiety and depression symptoms during the lockdown. Mental health services will have to brace for a surge in referrals of post-coronavirus cases."
Somer, who served as a mental health officer in the IDF and later as a civilian clinician for survivors of terrorism and childhood trauma, has suggested two key mechanisms for coping with the increased stress caused by the pandemic.
“The best coping is ‘problem-solving,’" he said. "It is not only the most effective means to face the challenge, but it can also enhance the sense of self-efficacy and competence."
In this case, problem-solving would entail taking precautions against the virus.
Somer continued: "If ‘problem-solving’ does not reduce the experienced distress, individuals may need to practice ‘emotion-focused’ coping to manage the ensuing distress and regulate it."]
Engaging in distracting or entertaining activities, calling upon a social support network, or engaging in spiritual or religious practice were among the suggestions made by Somer for managing emotions under stress.
However, he suggested that the warning signs indicative of serious mental distress or suicide also be understood to help those at risk. These include mood swings, changes in sleeping patterns, social withdrawal, increased use of alcohol or drugs, and talking about being in pain, being a burden to others, or wanting to die.
Looking ahead to beyond the pandemic, Somer suggested that two groups of people might particularly benefit from support.
The first is Israel's health care workers. Some facilities have already announced programs to support their health workers, who are at risk of developing PTSD from their experiences treating patients with the virus.
"At a minimum, frontline medical workers would benefit from a chance to be debriefed about their experiences," Somer said, adding: "Most would benefit from a chance to be pampered in an indulgent, compensatory rest and recuperation period.”
However, he added that his "main concern" was for Israel's elderly citizens.
"I would advise families to consider inviting senior family members to move in with them," he said. "The abandonment of older people in retirement homes, isolated from their families and at higher risk for contagion, was a sad psychological outcome. Inviting the elderly into the bosom of their younger family will not only improve their medical chances of survival but will also prevent psychological injury caused by loneliness and helplessness.”