Israel, U.S. benefit from sharing strengths in coping with terror

A survey following the Sept. 11 attacks found that 7.5 percent of Manhattan residents were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.A recent study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, Israel, reported that 25 percent of the …

A survey following the Sept. 11 attacks found that 7.5 percent of Manhattan residents were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.A recent study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, Israel, reported that 25 percent of the Israeli population is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In contrast, a survey done following the Sept. 11 attacks found that only 7.5 percent of Manhattan residents were suffering from PTSD.

Results indicate that Israel has a major problem with the after-effects of terror attacks and the United States has a potential problem, but both nations have lessons to teach each other, said speakers at a Jerusalem seminar on treating psychological damage from terror sponsored by the Israel-based International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Embassy.

Israelis can learn about how to be more open about the psychological damage they may be suffering as a result of the attacks. And the United States can profit by being better prepared than it was after Sept. 11 to treat people for psychological problems if attacks occur in the future.

“In Israel many people don’t realize they need help. We were brought up and learned that we had to get along on our own – and this is something that is hard to change,” said Judith Recanati, chairperson of NATAL, an Israeli organization that specializes in treating the psychological effects of terror.

PTSD is a mental illness contracted by those who live through a horrifying, terrifying experience. The illness causes nightmares and leads to avoidance of any place, thing, or person that reminds victims of their experiences. People suffering from PTSD are often angry and incapable of trust. They are continually in the flight mode, always on the lookout for danger.

In Israel, the authorities deal with threats by being prepared. Municipalities and school systems have psychological plans defining what to do and who to call in case of a terror attack, a hostage situation, or a shootout. Such programs, which are often taken out and reassessed, mean treatment is organized and pandemonium at a terror scene is kept to a minimum.

The United States, which faces the possibility of attacks that may be attempted or pulled off in the future, would do well to insure its institutions have similar plans, said Ronnie Berger, director of community activities at NATAL and a lecturer on trauma at New York University. Berger said it took several weeks for Americans to get organizations working together to give psychological treatment and emotional support after Sept. 11.

“Empathy and love is great, but (Americans) have to be well-organized in the beginning phases and that is definitely missing. (The United States) can learn how to do that,” Berger said.

After eighteen months of steady violence, nowhere in Israel really feels safe. Israeli parents are prohibiting teenagers from going to coffee shops, malls, and restaurants; relatives rarely visit family in Jerusalem or towns adjacent to Palestinian areas. Since the outbreak of violence, the number of Israelis seeking psychological help from nonprofit organizations like NATAL has quadrupled.

Learning to live with the dark cloud has meant that most Israelis build up defense mechanisms that allow them to cope. Some of the adaptation is in the shape of desensitization, but it also takes the form of black humor.

Under these conditions, Israelis need more cooperation and new models to cope with PTSD and other psychological side-effects of conflict, speakers said. Symptoms can grow worse as violence continues and psychologists are being called on to be more creative in their treatments.

“This is not the war we knew. There is almost an impossible scenario of uncertainty amidst continued threat, a feeling that events you never dreamt could happen will be the next scenario,” said Mooli Lahad, head of the Kiryat Shemona’s Community Stress Prevention Center. “The situation we are in today demands much more serious research and new models, a coalition of those who deal with trauma.”

In the United States, where warnings of potential attacks are being taken seriously, the majority of the public is going about its business. It is only the survivors of the Sept. 11 suicide attack on the World Trade Center that are suffering trauma similar to that of many Israelis.

“When you faced with a threat that is vague, as it is now in the U.S., people can deny or avoid it. Here in Israel it is clear that another attack is coming soon, and someone is going to be next, the question is just where. The pressure is more imminent; the stress is more imminent,” Berger said.