April 8, 2024
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April 8, 2024
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An Update on Mental Health in Israel Amid War

Research studies over decades show that music can ease depression and anxiety, decrease stress, regulate moods, and even reduce substance abuse. The classic Gloria Gaynor song, which resonates with the people of Israel to this day, offers the self-strengthening message: “I will survive.” Another captivating tune by Destiny’s Child makes it hard not to sing the lyrics to yourself: “I’m a survivor. I’m not gonna stop. I’m gonna make it.”

For so many, these words have tremendous meaning and singing the song is a form of what is called in the mental health arena, “self-talk,” when individuals can reverse their negative thoughts through an inner voice offering a motivational monologue.

But since October 7, music is not enough to address the mental health challenges for most Israelis, and especially for the 53% of Jews who cannot afford mental health care to treat war-induced issues and the 25% who do not have access to local practitioners in Israel.

In Israel, every day is a roller coaster of emotions. We sadly mourn the deaths of soldiers. We rejoice in the miracles that the soldiers experience and recount. We fear the fate of hostages. We are joyful over the release or rescue of hostages. We have anxiety about what is going to be tomorrow, next week, and even in the next hour. And yet life must go on, with weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, births and other life cycle celebrations.

Today a friend shared how her husband returned after a few weeks in Gaza and struggles to acclimate to his old life. He cannot handle the bright lights, noise and fast pace of people in a supermarket doing Shabbat shopping, having come from the dark tunnels of Hamas’ underground Gaza, where every step is taken in darkness, and with extreme caution and apprehension. Time does not heal all wounds. He needs professional help, like the majority of people he was with.

Families in Israel are struggling with the new realities they are facing, and not just of missiles overhead or sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers serving. Soldiers returning home from the north or south warfronts have seen things that we cannot imagine or are grappling with how they should feel after taking a life, albeit an enemy. Families of hostages who returned or who did not return are struggling with a tremendous mental health load. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced, many of whom had homes or businesses destroyed and need to sort through their emotions. The people in Israel are experiencing a national one-degree of separation: Everyone knows someone hurt, killed or taken hostage since October 7.

This week, we read the Torah portion of Ki Tisa, where the Jewish nation is described as a stiff-necked people. Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks, zt”l, explains, in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, zt”l, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto, that while being stiff-necked can be a flaw, it can also be a positive quality that is the secret of our survival. Throughout history, whenever Jews were pushed to the worst tests, they showed heroism, resistance, strength, unity and willingness to “suffer humiliation, persecution, even torture and death just because of the people they belong to and the faith they have…” Says Rabbi Sacks, that the Jews are prepared to go to their deaths with the words of Ani ma’amin on their lips and the stiff-necked trait being their “noblest strength.”

We are witnessing this now, with a unity and strength of the Jewish people around the world facing antisemitism at unprecedented rates not seen since the Holocaust. We see this daily in Israel, starting within 24 hours of Israel’s call-up of reserves in October, when there was a 130% response. We are seeing this in the volunteering in Israel, the fundraising for soldiers’ equipment and communities’ needs, and the doors that remain open to aid the displaced northern and southern Israeli residents. We are seeing resilience as a nation, and we are responding with our “stiff-necked” action as the world joins Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in targeting Israel.

We must harness this stiff-necked approach towards mental health care that is needed in Israel. The Jewish community globally must be stubborn and unbreakable in our determination that we will provide the necessary help for individuals to get through the psychological and emotional challenges they are experiencing. No one should be left behind in getting the mental health care they need—not now, not ever.

Before October 7, there was often a lengthy waiting time, sometimes even six months, for mental health support through the Israeli government’s health care system. Many had to seek private therapy, which was considerably more costly. Some could not afford it and simply did not receive it.

Eight years ago, Get Help Israel, the Israel Association of Mental Health Professionals, was founded by American olim to bridge the gap in the mental health care system. It took the lead to become the go-to resource for mental health in English, fostering a network of English-speaking mental health professionals who were vetted to ensure that they meet the training requirements of the association to offer the highest standard of service. These practitioners offer accessibility through in-person or virtual sessions around Israel, with a keen understanding of what day-to-day life is like here. Most important, Get Help Israel enables individuals, couples and families to receive immediate treatment without waiting lists, and hosts community-awareness events on important topics such as building resilience and transformative strategies to support a loved one with suicidal thoughts.

Unfortunately, many North Americans, including lone soldiers and immigrant families, cannot afford the private therapy, even at subsidized rates. Mental health care shouldn’t have to be a luxury. It is an essential and basic necessity for everyone in Israel who needs it. Hence, the Get Help Israel Fund was established as a separate entity, a U.S. 501(c)(3), to help fund urgent and direct mental health care, particularly for lone soldiers, soldiers and reservists returning from service, and immigrants. The demand is fast outpacing the supply, and as the war continues, the needs are expected to increase. But we are a stiff-necked people, and we know what we need to do—to not just survive but to thrive again, as individuals who join together to form our great Jewish nation.

Hopefully, the global Jewish community will recognize the critical role it can play and step up to fill the supply. As Rabbi Tarfon said (recorded in Pirkei Avot), the day is short, the work is plentiful … and the reward is great.

Learn more about Get Help Israel by visiting https://israelmentalhealth.org

Ira Prochko is the director of The Get Help Israel Fund, a non-denominational 501(c)(3) that funds mental health care for people in Israel, including lone soldiers and olim. He will be in the tri-state area from March 10 to March 14.

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