Seven mental-health counseling students from the State University of New York come to Israel to study ‘psychological first aid’ with Ben-Gurion University counterparts.
By Avigayil Kadesh
Seven graduate mental-health counseling students from the State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz spent 10 days in January 2015 in southern Israel, learning “psychological first aid” techniques used to deal with extreme stress.
They visited Gaza border towns and kibbutzim, where they met with communal leaders, mental-health professionals and ordinary citizens to study their resilience and recovery in a long-term crisis situation – sporadic missile fire from Gaza – that peaks and ebbs with no definite end in sight.
“Our graduate students were exposed to conversations about resilience, coping, challenges and leadership in those communities, and the impact of ongoing conflict,” says SUNY-New Paltz Institute for Disaster Mental Health Director Prof. James Halpern.
“It’s been a powerful experience to be in those communities with key people talking about those issues. Our meetings with residents and mental-health workers there were extremely impressive.”
These encounters provided a new perspective to Halpern, who normally focuses on populations traumatized by self-contained crises ranging from hurricanes to terrorism, including the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. In cities such as Sderot, the danger of incoming rockets is an ever-present specter.
“We are talking about people who are chronically exposed to trauma and are hyper-vigilant, maybe not leaving their houses. For many of those folks, that is an appropriate adaptive response,” he says.
“There are neighborhoods in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago that are also chronically exposed to danger and threat, and sometimes there may be an inappropriate assessment or diagnosis that they are staying home because they suffer from post-traumatic stress, when really they’re trying to stay safe. That is one example of how the Israeli experience can be informative to us.”
Understanding at a local level
The trip marked the first time that Halpern brought students with him, but he has come to Israel annually since 2009 to give a class to Israeli Arab and Jewish social-work students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in cooperation with BGU Prof. Richard Isralowitz, director of the Regional Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center (RADAR) in the Spitzer Department of Social Work..
“Recognizing the additional benefits that a binational cooperative experience would provide to graduate students from both universities, BGU invited SUNY-New Paltz students to participate with their counterparts in a unique, rich and culturally diverse experience,” says Isralowitz.
He became acquainted with Halpern while on sabbatical at New Jersey’s Rutgers University in 2007. They later won a UJA grant that allowed Halpern to come to BGU with Rutgers Associate Prof. of Social Work Patricia Findley to talk to Isralowitz’s students about crisis intervention. Their arrival unintentionally coincided with the military escalation between Hamas and Israel in January 2009.
“James and Patricia were at our campus in Beersheva when the missiles started flying at us, so they came along as we relocated the class to a community center in Arad,” says Isralowitz.
“That in itself shows resilience,” remarks Halpern.
The professors believe that, while mental-health interventions can reduce the impact of trauma and disaster, helping professionals must first gain a deep understanding of the specific environment and individuals affected.
“Conditions in Israel and its region expose citizens to episodes of violence and frequent mental-health emergencies. Residents of the United States face less chronic violence but more extreme weather disasters,” they wrote in a memorandum of understanding signed by the two universities in October 2014.
“Bringing together Israeli and American graduate students engaged in disaster preparedness, response and recovery will enable both groups to gain a broader and richer understanding of different types of crises and how to provide the most effective assistance in an ever-changing world.”
The importance of home
Second-year New Paltz grad student Gillian Hammond says she began to grasp these differences during two days the seven visitors spent in the Ayalim student village in the southern town of Dimona. The Ayalim Association is a social nonprofit organization that provides a boost to Negev and Galilee towns by giving college students full scholarships and discounted rent in return for 500 hours of community volunteering per academic year.
“Our experience at Ayalim in Dimona was amazing. It gave us another cultural perspective” says Hammond. “One of the first things I noticed was a reinforced concrete tube [used as a bomb shelter], and they explained that they have 15 to 30 seconds to run into the shelter when the air-raid siren sounds. They told us how, during the summer, a missile [from Gaza] had hit a Bedouin village nearby and they went as a community to visit an injured family in the hospital. Talking about that left me in awe that everything seemed normal, happy and peaceful there, while a couple of months ago it was total chaos.”
Isralowitz’s student Itay Pruginin, who is doing PhD research on secondary trauma affecting social workers in Gaza border communities, says the time spent in Dimona was a critical part of the joint program.
“As part of the training, the guests were able to hear firsthand about the local students’ experiences with regard to their work with patients traumatized by missile attacks, while at the same time being exposed themselves to the missile threat, a situation referred to in the literature as ‘shared war reality,’” Pruginin explains.
Unusual as this was for Americans, Hammond did find aspects of the experience striking a familiar chord.
“One of the biggest commonalities we’ve been talking about is the importance of people’s homes,” says Hammond. “We asked residents in the Gaza border areas why they stay there when it’s so dangerous, and it struck me that they said, ‘This is my home and I don’t want to leave.’ After 9/11, we saw the same thing: Many people didn’t want to leave Manhattan — this place that potentially could be a target — because they love it there.”
She also noted the benefits of belonging to a strong community. “We saw that this gets people through and provides comfort and support since everyone is going through the same thing.”
Halpern agrees. “There is no factor more curative than social support and unity,” he says. “One resident told us that when soldiers were in their town they opened their homes to them, and there was a strong sense of social support, which mitigates trauma and stress as much or more than anything else.”
Addressing human needs
The New Paltz mental-health counseling students also attended three days of classes with 25 BGU social-work grad students. Topics covered included the commonness and frequency of disaster and reactions to trauma and stress, as well as risk factors, identifying vulnerable populations, response trajectories and defining trauma.
Because children are the most vulnerable population anywhere in the world, they did a specific unit on working with children exposed to trauma and disaster.
Before heading to the Western Negev, the group had a chance to visit cultural sites that relate directly to the issues of trauma and disaster, including Yad Vashem –The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
Both professors deemed the student exchange a success and hope to repeat it in the coming years.
“In difficult times, these bridging relationships bring a sense of balanced perspective to the situation,” says Isralowitz.
He explains that for the past six years, SUNY-New Paltz IDMH and Ben-Gurion University’s RADAR Center/Spitzer Department of Social Work have worked together, with funding from the US Agency for International Development, to share expertise with social-work students in Israel and address mutual needs and concerns about coping with emergency conditions. Bringing New Paltz students into the mix broadens the potential for change.
“This joint effort addressing human needs is proving to be a catalyst for policy change and cooperation in Israel and beyond. It is a hallmark initiative that must be shared and disseminated to promote understanding and cooperation within this binational group of students who share mutual interests and concern for people in need of help.”
Each of the men has international standing in the field of community mental health. Halpern is the co-author of Disaster Mental Health: Theory and Practice, and has given numerous presentations on trauma and disaster mental health throughout the United States and abroad. He has consulted for the United Nations on assisting victims of terror and developed training modules for the UN emergency preparedness and support teams and UN mission leaders.
Isralowitz, in addition to authoring more than 100 peer-reviewed articles and 11 books on health and mental-health issues, was named a distinguished international scientist by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse; was a visiting professor at New York University and the University of Manchester, England; and did a Fulbright fellowship at the National University of Singapore.
Isralowitz also has served as senior advisor for social-research development throughout Africa and the Middle East to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ MASHAV Agency for International Development Cooperation.