Trauma experts warn of unhealed scars from war

Residents in the North fear government will abandon them in next conflict.

lebanon war trauma 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
lebanon war trauma 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss prepares to publish the findings of his investigation into the wartime conduct of the military and government on the home front, trauma experts said Tuesday that the government still needs to deal with those traumatized by last summer's war and that the country has a long way to go before it is mentally prepared for the next conflict. "There is a loss of perceived safety and security," said Ruth Bar-On, director of SELAH, the Israel Crisis Management Center, which provides assistance and support to new immigrants hit by sudden crisis, commenting on the people that her volunteers in the North help on a day-to-day basis. "There are feelings that another war is imminent and many of the people, most of whom are elderly, are anxious they will be left behind like last time, that there will be no one to bring them food. All their hope has been taken away." "The government needs to take more responsibility for developing programs [to treat stress and trauma]," commented Mooli Lahad, President and Founder of the Community Stress Prevention Center in Kiryat Shmona. "There are many people who were either exposed to shelling, had their houses destroyed or were wounded directly who are still suffering from trauma. There are a few services for them, and on a daily basis that is fine, but during an emergency there needs to be a whole network in place for all areas of the country." "Everyone [health and social welfare workers] was overextended during the war; no one expected it to happen the way it did with daily rocket attacks, people being killed and the situation going on as long as it did," commented Tali Levanon, Coordinator of the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC), an alliance of trauma-related service providers working to improve Israel's trauma-response capacity. Nahum Ido, spokesman for the Social Affairs Ministry, said that roughly 400 social workers were meant to be on call during the war, "it was not really enough." According to Ido, the social services found themselves in a problematic situation whereby some of the assigned social workers did not show up for work out of their own personal anxieties and fears. Enlisting help from social workers elsewhere in the country was not practical. "Immediately following the war, the office started to implement a program to train social workers on how to deal with an emergency situation both in terms of treating the people and dealing with their own mental health needs," said Ido. "There were some authorities where even social workers who were supposed to be on vacation came into work to help out and there were other places such as Safed, where many of the workers did not show up at all." Both Lahad and Levanon were invited following the war to contribute their expertise to a government-appointed inter-ministerial committee aimed at mentally preparing the country for future wars. "[The committee] has only met twice and it is already eight months after the war," he said. "It will probably take another year and a half before programs are set up and running." "We need direct services for individual citizens, training for government and first responders and courses within the local authorities to prepare their employees for emergencies," said Levanon. Sharon Azriel, acting director-general of the Union of Local Authorities, denied suggestions that many local authority staff in northern communities abandoned their work stations during the crisis. However, he said that since last summer's war, some regional councils had started to better train their staff on how to cope during such an emergency. That effort is based on the desire and financial capability of each individual local council, admitted Azriel. "It needs to be coordinated on a government level," he continued. "Some local authorities do not have a budget for such things." "There needs to be a comprehensive 'city resilience program' [to train first responders such as hospital staff and paramedics, as well as government and local authority staff to continue working during times of crisis]," said Lahad. "Local services need to be trained for emergency planning, contingency plans need to be developed for the staff and their families." Last week the Knesset Finance Committee approved the Prime Minister's Office's request for a NIS 1 billion budgetary transfer in 2007 to finance the government's plan for strengthening Haifa and the north. "There is a large budget for developing such programs," said Levanon. "But the response is slow, mainly because the government and private funders have not yet decided what the focus of tackling the nation's psychological needs should be."