Coping with trauma – and learning from it

Yeshiva University social-work students in Israel discover that addressing emotional trauma goes hand in hand with physical treatment.

Wurzweiler students from Yeshiva University visit the Rape Crisis Center in Kiryat Shmona (photo credit: YU WURZWEILER)
Wurzweiler students from Yeshiva University visit the Rape Crisis Center in Kiryat Shmona
(photo credit: YU WURZWEILER)
Less than a year after New York native Danielle Litt-Halpern made aliya to Beersheba, she always needed to know where the nearest bomb shelter was.
It was the summer of 2014, and in the midst of Operation Protective Edge, the city was frequently targeted by the Hamas rocket launching crews in Gaza.
She says that “as a new immigrant, the trauma from the daily sirens stayed with me, so [I asked myself]: What do you do with this feeling, and how do you cope?” Just two years later, Litt-Halpern is learning not only how to cope with trauma, but how to help others develop their resilience mechanisms following traumatic experiences as part of her master’s degree studies in social work at Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work’s Israel Block Program.
The two-year program allows students to live and carry out field work toward their degree in Israel, while requiring them to spend summers at the school’s New York campus for classroom studies.
WITH THE potential for traumatic experiences an unfortunate reality in Israel, Litt-Halpern, along with nine other Wurzweiler students, participated in a recent four-day, two-credit course on trauma, emergency response and recovery offered in partnership with the Tel Hai College of Social Work’s Stress, Trauma and Resilience Studies program.
Called “Trauma and Interpersonal Violence,” the course provided Israel Block students with lectures and workshops on trauma intervention; site visits to Israeli agencies providing advanced trauma care, including the Kiryat Shmona Rape Crisis Center for women and the town’s Mashabim Community Stress Prevention Center; meetings with social workers and other mental health professionals on an IDF base; and a real-time emergency-response simulation exercise with army and civil defense personnel.
The students will be presenting what they learned from their experiences to classmates in New York this summer.
The course was the brainchild of Dr. Saul Andron, an associate professor on Wurzweiler’s New York campus. He says the main goal was to “provide our students based in Israel with the opportunity to be exposed to, and delve into, current practice areas and issues which are important in Israel, including trauma and emergency response.”
He added: “We want our students to be exposed to theories and practice at the macro community level, and to learn how to utilize community resources in cases of trauma.”
Andron says that since trauma is a major concentration at Tel Hai, the exposure his students received while interacting with Tel Hai social-work students who also took part in the course was highly beneficial.
One of the presenters during the course was Wurzweiler associate professor Rozetta Schaeffer. Like Andron, she believes in the importance of understanding how a community responds to traumatic events in the healing process.
“When you are talking about resilience, you are usually talking about intervention,” Schaeffer says. “But resilience really means ‘community’ [and asking] are there community resources? The adaptive capacities within the community are what help people move on.”
An additional presenter was Dr. Lynn Levy, another Wurzweiler assistant professor.
One of the components she focused on was the role and importance of a person’s spirituality in the healing process following a traumatic event.
Levy says that spirituality and faith can be an extremely important tool for a clinician, although “in some cases, [spirituality] might do the opposite.”
She explains that “something spiritual that might have been helpful in the past might not be useful, as someone might question their relationship with God after a traumatic event.”
She stresses, therefore, how important it is for a clinician to determine what tools will in fact be helpful toward resilience, and to assist a person in adapting to his or her situation.
“Living in the post-9/11 US, clinicians say that many are living in a post-traumatic stress disorder environment and are feeling the effects,” Levy adds. “Our school [Wurzweiler] is one of the few that has a real and serious interest in this because our students are encountering different forms of trauma in their field placements. We want this program [in Israel] to be a stepping stone toward institutionalizing this [trauma] treatment.”
REPRESENTING Tel Hai was Dr. Moshe Farchi, director of the college’s Stress, Trauma and Resilience Studies program.
He says his goal in participating in the course was to “teach new ideas and methods of ‘psychological first-aid,’ with the wider idea of providing this knowledge to professionals and also non-professionals.”
A first-response medic with Magen David Adom and a member of the emergency search-and-rescue team in the Golan Heights, Farchi shared with the students how he implemented what might be a revolutionary approach in the world of emergency care: One of his roles as a first-responder is to serve as a mental-health professional focusing on a victim’s psychological symptoms following a terror attack, car accident or other traumatic event.
The actual methods and philosophy of treatment he developed are also groundbreaking.
“Instinctively, when someone is in [a state of] trauma, they are told to sit down, relax, etc. But these instructions actually induce more severe trauma,” Farchi explains.
“You need to activate the person according to the event” instead of distracting him or her, he insists.
“If someone was in a car accident, for example, ask them to be involved by calling the police to explain what happened. Ask cognitive questions to keep their minds going, according to the situation,” he says.
“I’ve heard of so many times in the US of school shootings or terror attacks, and you keep on hearing that the immediate reaction is to lock [the person affected] up in his home. This actually increases the anxiety,” he says. “But with basic tools, you can increase resiliency.”
He adds that Israel’s health minister has recognized the relevance of his methodology, and says he is counting on the Israel Block students “not only to know for themselves how to provide this aid, but to spread it to others.”
Israel Block student Jessica Hart, who made aliya from Toronto, says the information she garnered from the lectures and sessions with Farchi were the “highlight” of the four-day experience.
“People here are exposed to traumatic events all the time, and there are those who have not necessarily had a lot of time to process [what happened] before being exposed to another one or hearing about another one,” she says, saying this can induce trauma. “We learned way more in the last four days, getting hands-on experience, then you can [learn] just sitting behind a desk.”
Litt-Halpern agrees that the course was highly beneficial, calling it “an incredible holistic experience” and “very practical here in Israel.”
“What we learned is very crucial even if you aren’t a social worker interested in working [specifically] in trauma, since in any aspect of this field, we’re going to be working with clients who have experienced some form of trauma,” she explains.
“This course was an ‘appetizer,’ which opened a door showing us how much knowledge is out there and how much more there is to learn.”