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Day 67: Iron Swords War

By Leah Garber

A State of Mind

67 days into the war—what is the state of the nation? How can one describe the mental and emotional condition of an entire nation that has gone through the worst trauma since the establishment of the State?

Our country woke up on a holiday morning to a new reality where it was changed forever. Through live broadcasts, eight million people witnessed a nightmare right in front of their eyes. They followed minute-by-minute coverage featuring distressed voices of people calling out from besieged safe rooms in Israel’s southern towns and kibbutzim. They saw terrifying images that seemed to come out of a horror movie, showing thousands of bloodthirsty terrorists, speeding through Israel, murdering anyone who came across their way—wearing body cameras that recorded it all.

An entire nation in trauma. Some experience nightmares. Everyone is alert to any unusual sounds and jumps at any small noise. Small children are afraid to shower because of what will happen if the siren sounds. More citizens than ever carry weapons for self-defense, and those without a license are in the process of getting one issued. Every pick-up truck is reminiscent of the terrorists’ cars, so now, these vehicles owned by Israelis are marked with large Israeli flags. Doors are locked, eyes are suspicious, and every foreign figure is suddenly threatening. Fear is in the air. This is real anxiety in a way that we have never known.

A new study by the Center for the Study of Suicidality and Mental Pain in Israel, which examined the prevalence of mental disorders and various psychological symptoms before and after the massacre, indicates the broad and significant impact of the October 7th massacre on the mental health of the population in Israel.

Data indicates that the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doubled to 30% following the massacre. Rates of depression and anxiety have also increased dramatically to almost 45% of the population.

The main finding is that although the rates of mental health difficulties and psychological disorders before the massacre were already higher than the average in Western countries—the Israeli public was already vulnerable from experiencing trauma upon trauma attributed to years of constant threats and fears of war and terror—and now these numbers have doubled.

More than 60% of the population reported a deterioration in their day-to-day functioning and ability to concentrate and work. The data show a significant decrease in optimism, hope, and peace of mind. And 60% fear for their personal safety and 63% fear for the future of the country.

These figures refer only to the general public—those of us who watched those broadcasts of the sudden and murderous attack of October 7th. The ones not scarred by the clinging claws of death or heartbroken forever after losing a loved one.

Those with direct exposure to the massacre, Israelis in southern towns and kibbutzim on October 7th, have an increased risk of mental health disorders three times those who were not there. Many young people who participated in the Nova Festival were offered a treatment combining group dynamics, art, music therapy, etc. Some of them were flown to retreat destinations in Cyprus, and some are going through a similar experience in retreat centers throughout Israel. All of the therapies have a common goal to enable the participants to process the traumatic experience through shared conversations and relaxation in a protected environment with others who lived through the same trauma. This is aside from those survivors who require continued complementary mental health care and those few who need full psychiatric hospitalizations.

A study conducted in collaboration with the University of Haifa, the Shalvata Mental Health Center, and Columbia University, revealed that there has been a significant increase in the use of addictive substances since October 7th. Among respondents, 16% reported an increase in nicotine consumption, 10% reported an increase in alcohol use, and 5.5% reported an increase in cannabis use. A sharp increase was also recorded in the consumption of potentially addictive prescriptive drugs. The internet is full of articles with tips for relieving tension and stress, methods for alleviating new anxiety symptoms, recommendations on reducing news consumption, watching difficult testimonies, and so on.

The problem with all these wise recommendations is that the trauma of October 7th is not over yet. Sixty-seven days later, nearly tangible fear for the safety of 137 hostages who are still in captivity, with no prospect of release, and with no idea of ​​their physical condition, let alone their mental one, proves that the trauma was not a single or static event.

Hundreds of thousands of families fear for the safety of their loved ones who are serving in Gaza and on the northern border. These families are looking for any shred of information that will testify to the safety of their fighting sons and daughters while every knock on their door is nerve-racking.

The trauma of October 7th is more palpable than ever for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their burnt homes in southern communities or from their homes in the north, which the state evacuated out of fear for their safety.

It’s hard to practice calming techniques and stress-reducing tips when so many are still recovering from their injuries. Only yesterday we were informed that Zvika Lavi, a father of three small children who was mortally wounded in the fighting in Gaza about two weeks ago, died from his injury.

Above all, how can the families of more than 1,200 who were murdered in cold blood try to ease their mental stress when knowing how their loved ones were slaughtered is unrelenting? The unbelievable brutality of their killers’ actions leaves no room in their hearts and souls for practicing relaxing breathing.

The blackness is blacker than ever; the gloom is more present than ever. The nation’s soul that was seriously wounded 67 days ago continues to bleed and refuses to heal. Our hearts are broken, shattered, and the pieces are in the tunnels of Gaza with our abductees, in the burned kibbutzim, in the cemeteries, in the beds of the orphans who cry at night for their parents, and by the cold cup of coffee of the bereaved mother, for whom even a simple act of enjoying a cup of coffee is impossible. Only when all 137 of our sons and daughters are returned from the filthy hands of their captors, and only when we are assured that the last of Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists have been neutralized and no longer pose a threat, maybe we will adopt methods of calming down and begin to breathe.

The studies I quoted above also indicate one important and positive data point: a significant percentage of the Israeli population reports an increasing sense of belonging to the country. So, either we are truly demented because we feel a deeper sense of belonging when our country is wounded, beaten, bruised, and bleeding, or it’s that the love of our homeland, a noble and fundamental value in the DNA of every Israeli, is reinforced precisely in times of trouble. I strongly believe in the latter.

After all, even when it is unbearably difficult, there is no place like home.

Happy Hanukkah.

Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

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