Terror’s invisible scars

Since 1948, Israeli society has lived under constant threat. No Israeli is untouched by terror or trauma, either through personal bereavement or injury or by extension through a member of their family or community.

Rape [illustration] 370 (photo credit: Ingimage)
Rape [illustration] 370
(photo credit: Ingimage)
Recently, CNN published an article concerning Thomas Bean, a member of the Newtown, CT Police Force and a first responder of the Newtown Massacre, a tragedy that left 20 children and six Sandy Hook Elementary School staff heinously murdered. The article brought to light Officer Bean’s struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD ) and his impending dismissal from the Police Force, as his precinct can no longer afford to pay his long-term disability.
From a photo of Officer Bean or even a meeting on the street, you would never know of his struggle with this debilitating psychological injury.
PTSD does not scar the physical body and it cannot be healed with surgery or stitches. But the haunting scenes of the mass murder he witnessed at the elementary school continue to corrode his personality, poison his sense of self, throw his world off balance and destroy his ability to work and live as he did before December 14, 2012.
In recent years, we have seen much progress with the general population’s ability to understand and appreciate PTSD and the psychological effects of traumatic experiences.
However, the precinct’s response of dismissal and the public’s response to the article published by CNN – quips like “This guy should put on his big boy pants and get on with life” – show that significant strides still need to be made in the comprehension of psychological injury.
In Israel, an estimated nine percent of residents suffer from PTSD , three times the level of residents in the US and other Western countries. We are all too familiar with the impact of trauma and psychological injury on victims of terror, soldiers, police, and whole communities that are forced to find refuge in bomb shelters on a consistent basis.
As a country, we have survived wars, rockets attacks, and acts of terror on our streets and in our homes, all of which create a culture of fear and leave an overwhelming number of people with deep psychological wounds.
While Israelis, in general, sympathize with and seek to assist victims of trauma who bear these invisible scars, the global community, purely as a consequence of the infrequency of terror attacks in their countries, has yet to grapple with two extremely important issues.
The first is understanding the destructive reach of PTSD . In fact, just witnessing or hearing about a shocking event can trigger PTSD . Psychological shrapnel can pierce one’s being, regardless of his physical proximity to the actual event. As such, understanding the devastating effects of trauma is key to ensuring that victims at all points on the trauma spectrum are not mistreated of victimized further, like the case of Officer Bean.
The second issue is developing a proper response to trauma. Unsolved, this issue is nothing less than a grave injustice. To emphasize the point, let’s compare the response to two different scenarios. If Officer Bean had sustained a gunshot wound to his chest and had been classified as permanently disabled, his precinct would not be able dismiss him from the force or take away his benefits. However, since he is “only” psychologically disabled, he was ruthlessly dismissed from the force, despite being equally incapacitated. And his employers and fellow policemen have a clean conscience to boot! Since 1948, Israeli society has lived under constant threat. No Israeli is untouched by terror or trauma, either through personal bereavement or injury or by extension through a member of their family or community.
As a nation, we understand trauma and accept it as a norm. Our response to trauma comes from a true sense of empathy.
However, the empathy we feel for a person with visible injuries is still stronger than the emotions felt for the sufferers of psychological trauma.
The State of Israel has a well-developed response system that is executed by Bituach Leumi, the National Welfare Institute, to assess, evaluate and provide disability benefits to citizens injured in terror attacks. Each injury, physical or psychological, is measured in a percentage matrix, from 20%- 100% disability, with financial assistance provided accordingly.
While Israel is more advanced in this field than any other country, there is still a lot of room for improvement.
For one thing, the system does not take into account financial, professional, or emotional conditions that existed before the traumatic incident.
From a social point of view, it is important that the realities of life before the trauma and the impact on life after the fact are not ignored.
However, fair monetary compensation is not the only thing missing.
We believe that the ultimate response to psychological and physical injuries or loss is the combination of financial, medical and psychological support as well as the permanent, and reliable support of “a professional friend,” someone to hold the victim’s hand an guide him through the recovery process. In this area, as in many others, Israel could (and should) become a light unto the nations, showing the proper way for a country to care for its physically and psychologically wounded victims of terror attacks.
That said, we call on the governments and citizens of the world to educate themselves and improve global awareness about the debilitating effects of PTSD and other psychological injuries. Only after we understand the painful consequences of PTSD will we be able to develop the ideal response.
We have a responsibility to take care of our emotionally wounded and to ensure that when they cry out for help, we will be there to respond appropriately. The scars of post trauma may be invisible, but our support must be both visible and absolute.
The author is the co-founder and chairman of OneFamily (www.onefamilytogether.org), Israel’s only national organization solely dedicated to the rehabilitation of victims of terror attacks and their families.