Israeli experts help train others to treat trauma from war - opinion

Metiv reached out to Ukrainian psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, offering the opportunity for sponsored participation in a Jerusalem-based course focused on war-related trauma.

 PARTICIPANTS HOLD the Ukrainian flag; Prof. Danny Brom at 3rd R.  (photo credit: Metiv – the Israel Psychotrauma Center)
PARTICIPANTS HOLD the Ukrainian flag; Prof. Danny Brom at 3rd R.
(photo credit: Metiv – the Israel Psychotrauma Center)

Israel’s expertise in the fields of research and development, hi-tech and the initiators of new concepts is recognized worldwide. But how many are aware that because of our wars, the ongoing challenge of rockets in the South and threats from the North, we have become a leader in the treatment of those suffering trauma related to war or a potential war situation. 

Readers of my column will know of the work of Metiv – the Israel Psychotrauma Center based at the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem. Metiv initiated varied schemes specifically to help veteran combat soldiers deal with the trauma with which they are often left. Its project “Peace of Mind” offers the opportunity for those who recognize they have problems to experience time away with their entire unit colleagues – many of whom might not, initially, appreciate that they, too, are left with the scars of battle. 

Israelis have experienced post-war trauma virtually since our rebirth in 1948. The War of Independence that claimed 6,000 dead – virtually 1% of the population at the time – is by far the highest number of deaths of any successive wars that Israel has fought. Not to forget the effect of both the first and second Intifadas, which have tragically left their traumatic mark on too many Israelis.

For 14 years (with the exception of the COVID period) Metiv has run an annual course, focused on trauma, for therapists worldwide. This year the center was particularly keen to attract Ukrainian therapists caught in the midst of a horrific war with the boundless emotional damage it has evoked.

The Magazine spoke with Prof. Danny Brom, founding director of Metiv, to find out more about the recent three-week course run in conjunction with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Metiv reached out to Ukrainian psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, offering the opportunity for sponsored participation in a Jerusalem-based course focused on war-related trauma. Participants were housed at the Hebrew University, where course sessions took place for the first two weeks; the final week’s sessions were based at Metiv on the Herzog Medical Center campus.

 ABSORBING A lecture in the course on Jerusalem. (credit: Metiv – the Israel Psychotrauma Center) ABSORBING A lecture in the course on Jerusalem. (credit: Metiv – the Israel Psychotrauma Center)

How did this course come about?

The foundations were laid subsequent to a lecture, given by Brom and arranged by psychiatrist/psychoanalyst Yehuda Frankl, to the Ukrainian Psychoanalytic Institute. Following his presentation, an experienced therapist asked Brom how women who were raped by Russian soldiers could be helped. 

He explained his surprise at the question. “Rape happens all over the world even when there is no war. I learned from the participants in our current course that few therapists in Ukraine focus on trauma but ‘suddenly’ now realize that they need to be trained.” 

“Rape happens all over the world even when there is no war. I learned from the participants in our current course that few therapists in Ukraine focus on trauma but ‘suddenly’ now realize that they need to be trained.”

Prof. Danny Brom

How did the 20 Ukrainian therapists who participated in the Jerusalem-based course, hear about its availability?

Primarily via two channels: the Ukrainian Psychoanalytic Institute and through contacts made, via a Metiv program, where Israeli Russian-speaking therapists were trained to offer phone help to Ukrainian citizens and therapists. These 150 volunteers continue their phone support until today.

To find out how the Ukrainian therapists were faring on the course (which included the addition of seven therapists from other countries) the Magazine spoke with two participants.

SVITLANA IS a clinical psychologist whose home is in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. Svitlana was in an emotional state at the outset of our conversation. She had learned, early that morning, that a Russian missile had struck and destroyed the home of her parents’ neighbors in Vinnytsia. It had taken some time before she was able to make contact with her parents who, fortunately, were not at home when the missile struck. 

It transpired that Kalibr cruise missiles, fired from a Russian ship in the Black Sea, damaged a medical clinic, offices, stores and residential buildings in Vinnytsia, leaving at least 23 people killed and wounding more than 100 others. 

Svitlana explained that since the beginning of the war in February 2014 (when Russia sought control over the Donbas region on Ukraine’s eastern border) over 14,000 people have been killed. As a psychologist, she became actively involved in the Veteran Hub Center, treating combat fighters suffering from PTSD. 

What disturbed her greatly was to see those she had treated, some eight years earlier, returning a second time with trauma effects from current battles. The prime task was to rebuild identities and assist the traumatized to regain relationships and return to normal living. Svitlana finds her work both demanding and exhilarating.

“My clients give me more than I give them – their hope to overcome the challenges is inspiring,” she said.

Aside from the excellent lectures, a highlight had been an informative field trip to the North, which included a stop at Kiryat Shmona’s Community Center. Here the focus was on developing resilient communities: to be ready, emotionally, to face any future attack from across the border. Workshops were aimed at preventing post-trauma, as well as pre-trauma. Simply put, the prime objective is to prepare psychologically for any future war.

On the way back to Jerusalem the group stopped off at the Herzliya beach, which proved to be therapeutic for the therapists. “It was truly a restorative experience to sit by the sea and watch as the waves washed over the sand,” Svitlana said.

“Thank God I don’t have children.” 

She explained that the war impacted every family – not only the battle combatants, but also bereaved parents, victims of domestic violence, those who lost a child at birth, and women who had to deliver their babies in bomb shelters.

Having witnessed how the war is traumatizing children, Svitlana said, “Thank God I don’t have children.” 

Emotions run high, embracing fear, pain and despair with anger at what is not being done. These were the feelings running through her mind upon learning that a missile had struck her parents’ neighbors’ home. She could readily identify with the conglomeration of emotions her clients experience on a daily basis.

As part of the curriculum, participants were introduced to a program geared specifically toward children aged seven to 12 and their parents. The program, “Panda,” was originally developed by Metiv for children’s homes in Singapore. Its aim is to teach youngsters “emotion regulation.” Emotion regulation has been recognized in the past 10 years as one of the main factors of resilience in children 

What has Svitlana gained from the course? 

“It has been a meaningful chance to evaluate the complex aspects of working with trauma, to learn from the other participants of their individual working methods,” she reflected.

“Israel is a role model for us, because of the country’s need to cope with war again and again over many years. It’s good to hear from one who has survived. On a personal level, the course gave the therapists a rare opportunity to look at our own trauma - sharing personal stories enabled us to off-load one to the other.” 

OLGA ALSO participated in the program. How did she hear about the project? “I saw it on Facebook,” she told the Magazine, and she immediately applied. On receiving her letter of acceptance, she burst into tears. 

Olga explains that until April, her home was near Dnipro, a war region that she was forced to leave because of the ongoing severity of the battles. Today Olga lives in the capital Kyiv. Since graduating from university 10 years ago, she works as a psychologist and psychotherapist. While running a private practice she gives a number of hours each week to those who cannot afford to pay for help. 

Olga shares one of her client’s stories.

“It was hard for 55-year-old ‘S’ to seek pro-bono psychological help, because she believes there are many whose situation is much worse than hers,” Olga said. 

“S” has lived in Kharkiv all her life. Her husband is from Russia, and her adult daughter, who lives in Russia, says “‘there is no war – it’s all made up.” The daughter is no longer in contact with “S”.

Prior to the war, “S” worked as a seamstress for a small manufacturer, but the owner left the country and the place is partially in ruins.

“S” suffers from anxiety; many negative emotions are connected to her daughter’s refusal to talk to her. At the conclusion of the three pro bono sessions, Olga asked “S”: What was most helpful? Her client’s response was that she has adapted and found of value some anxiety reduction techniques for herself; she has also found the courage to make new friends in the neighborhood. 

IT IS difficult to imagine the emotional devastation with which Ukrainians have to cope during this ongoing war. Olga relates that another course participant is supporting a woman who lost all her family in one of the bombing raids; the woman survived but lost her legs and is unable to work, resulting in severe depression. 

What will Olga take away with her from her Jerusalem experience? The outstanding lecturers, the professionalism, new methodology but, in addition, the warm support she has felt from the Israelis she has met during the course of her brief stay. 

“I cried a lot. We, the participants, whose job is to help others, were able to receive help with our own personal trauma. My mother (one of only two relatives) lives close to the Russian border and I worry about her each and every day. 

“Being able to participate in this course has proven to be a safe environment in which we – the professionals – are able to expose our own feelings. We have felt being cared for and our needs have been addressed. 

Prof. Brom’s words ring loud and clear: “We can gain strength from being together, share trauma which, inevitably, we will experience more than once in our lifetime”  

The writer is chairperson of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association (IBCA). Professionally she worked for 30 years as a relationship and educational counselor.