Mental health crisis in Israel

Israel has been plunged into a mental health crisis by the October 7 Hamas attacks, the hostage crisis and the subsequent war, with the population reeling from anxiety and depression and at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, experts say.

The fate of the hostages held captive in Gaza continues to terrorize the country. The image shows photos of the hostages set up outside the defense headquarters in Tel Aviv. Photo: Ruben Agnarsson

A study published in the Lancet medical journal on January 5 said “all citizens of Israel were in some way exposed to this attack of unprecedented scale and traumatic impact,” AFP (Agence France-Presse) reported.
“It reflects a national mass trauma,” said the study, co-authored by Yossi Levi-Belz, who looked at PTSD, depression and anxiety levels after the attack and found “a broad and significant impact” on the mental health of Israelis.
The violence that has traumatised Israelis began early on October 7, the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when Hamas terrorists breached the Gaza border fence.
In towns, kibbutzim and at a music festival in the desert, terrorists killed civilians indiscriminately.
Security forces were also hit hard in the three days of heavy fighting it took for Israel to regain control of its territory.
Police are still working to assess the extent of the sexual violence that was reported in addition to the murders. And the fate of more than 100 of the hostages held captive in Gaza (27 of whom are believed to have died), continues to traumatise the country.

Double number of emergency calls

After the attack, calls to Israel’s hotline for people with mental illness almost doubled, said its director, Shiri Daniels.
Among those affected were not only the survivors who had suffered unimaginable horrors firsthand, but also the families of the victims and hostages, as well as rescuers and police officers, Daniels said.
Even those who were not directly affected are still distressed, she told AFP, adding that “everyone in Israel identifies with the victims.”
Daniels describes examples where children cannot be left alone by their parents at night, adults who cannot concentrate or who are consumed by guilt over not being able to save their loved ones.
Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov estimates that of Israel’s population of 9.7 million people, not only have around 100,000 been exposed to traumatic events since the start of the war but also about 200,000 have been displaced from their homes.
Even before the war, the mental health of Israelis was in bad shape, especially due to the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
The World Health Organization estimated that the percentage of Israeli youth who regularly complained of feeling low or anxious or having trouble sleeping had increased from 20 percent in 2019 to 30 percent in 2022, “pointing to a significant increase in psychological distress after the pandemic,” AFP continued.

Getting ready for major war

Psychologist Milca Adrey of OneFamily, an association that supports victims of attacks in Israel, said that while not everyone develops PTSD, October 7 can also rekindle past trauma, including for Holocaust survivors.
Suzy Sprecher, an eighty-year-old who survived World War II hiding in France, said she was deeply affected by reports of children imprisoned in mazes of underground tunnels in Gaza.
The October 7 massacre, the hostage situation and the ongoing war are affecting the entire country of Israel.
– We are preparing for a major war this autumn, says Shimon Sabag, who for over two decades ran a home in Haifa for Holocaust survivors, with the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem as sponsor.
Two smaller fire trucks have been purchased, as well as several generators to handle operations in the event of a power outage. Children’s books have also been printed that explain with big color pictures what an air-raid alarm is.
– Those who survived the Holocaust and follow the news are shaken. Children burned alive, kidnappings and mass executions remind them of what they themselves have been through, he says.
The number of Israelis who have sought help for their mental health has tripled since the October 7 massacre by Hamas until the end of 2023. A study by Ruppin College in Israel and Columbia University reveals that 29 percent of Israelis suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 42 percent suffered from depression and 44 percent suffered from anxiety in the weeks following the attack, almost double the number recorded two months before the attack.