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Gaza Crisis Spurs Demand for Mental Health Support

“We had a few therapists recuse themselves from seeing clients as they couldn’t hear the stories anymore… we can only imagine the deep impact the genocide is having on the clients coming in with those stories, especially young children.”

“We had a few therapists recuse themselves from seeing clients as they couldn’t hear the stories anymore… we can only imagine the deep impact the genocide is having on the clients coming in with those stories, especially young children.”

Zakiya, who is 36, says her mental health has worsened since the war in Gaza began. “It’s difficult to live, to get through the day. It feels like I’m carrying a ball of grief. I’m already in therapy but all my sessions have been talking about the situation in Gaza.”

Naila Dunleavy, a psychotherapist based in London, said the violence in Gaza “has most certainly been brought into the therapy room. This war seems to have struck a different chord across the world.”

Zakiya, who asked not to share her last name, has a history of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. She is one of many, experiencing symptoms of mental health distress around the world, since the violence in Gaza began in October 2023. The rate of Gaza’s civilian deaths has surpassed those of other conflict zones in the 21st century. 

“We are in a mental health crisis,” said Amannee Elchehimi, a Clinical Counsellor and Clinical Director at Ruh, an online therapy platform, designed for a Muslim audience, that has facilitated 320 free therapy sessions internationally as part of a Palestine Mental Health Response since October 2023.

These sessions were delivered to those immediately impacted by the violence in Gaza as well as those who have not been impacted by trauma first-hand. “We had parents reach out who have lost over 10 or 20 family members and are bringing their children to see a therapist.”

“While we don’t offer mental health support in Gaza or Palestine directly, because it’s a very specific cultural and sociopolitical context, we are providing therapy to anyone else in the world who is being impacted by what is happening and that’s really our whole community in a lot of ways,” said Elchehimi.

Dunleavy says mental health can be impacted by the violence in Gaza for several reasons, including pre-existing mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), exposure to violent images while watching news from Gaza, the triggering of personal trauma based on race, and being othered as well as the portrayal of the war by the media; the disparity between the comparative situation in Ukraine adds to this.

Intergenerational Trauma

For Zakiya, the images of the violence in Gaza reminded her of her grandfather’s experiences: “I don’t know if it’s partly generational trauma. My grandad fought in the Algerian Revolution. From the stories I’ve heard and the things I’ve read about what was done to the Algerians, the way our people were treated by the French, the way they were tortured and slaughtered… I carry that all the time because even though I wasn’t around at the time, that’s still my family so it’s very close to me. So, the situation in Palestine always feels very close to home.”

It is estimated that 1.5 million Algerians were killed during the Algerian War, which ended 132 years of French colonial rule and took place between 1954 and 1962. In 2018, France admitted to using systematic torture in its attempts to arrest the independence movement at the time. 

Zakiya is one of 40 individuals who responded to a questionnaire made for the purpose of this article from various spiritual orientations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, living in the UK, the US, and Germany. All respondents felt the violence in Gaza had negatively impacted their mental health. 

A change in mood was the most commonly reported symptom of mental health distress (36.1%), according to the questionnaire. Others reported increased anxiety (22.2%), and sleeplessness (11.1%) while the rest reported experiencing all or nearly all of the listed options for mental health distress (30.6%).

When asked if one can be impacted by violent conflicts in other countries, Dunleavy replied, “Witnessing conflict will be extremely triggering. Those carrying intergenerational trauma, who may not have witnessed events first-hand, can also be triggered.”

Intergenerational trauma occurs in individuals whose older relatives or ancestors experienced extremely distressing or oppressing events, triggering emotional or behavioural reactions that can ripple through generations of families such as increased anxiety, low self-esteem, and difficulty with relationships.

Experts say the remediation of these symptoms involves talking to experienced mental health professionals who can help trace a family’s history of trauma, manage emotions related to one’s family history, and discuss current-day traumas such as racism that may be linked to the original trauma. 

Having Pre-Existing Mental Health Conditions Such As PTSD

Witnessing the violence unfold in Gaza can also be a trigger for people like Layla, who developed PTSD, after living through the war in Iraq. Layla, whose name has been changed in this article, did not think reading a thread of messages from her colleagues after October 7th would end with her in tears and signed off from work.

“It was the day after I read through all my work messages after the 7th of October. There was one message in particular that caused a lot of pain for me.” Layla describes how her colleague was talking about [the war in Gaza] from the Israeli perspective and how the narrative was extremely one-sided, “They openly expressed and incited hatred towards Arabs, dehumanising and vilifying civilians.”

Layla was born and raised in Iraq until 2006 when she moved to the UK. Members of her immediate family were killed during the war in Iraq, which is estimated to have killed up to 316,000 people. Layla’s symptoms of post-traumatic stress are described on the NHS website on PTSD, which include nightmares and flashbacks, experiencing feelings of isolation, irritability, and guilt amongst others. These symptoms often impact a person’s day-to-day life and can develop after a very stressful, frightening, or distressing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience

Psychologists studying the impact of PTSD recommend talking therapies, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), although a combination of talking therapy and medicine may be recommended for those with severe or persistent PTSD. CBT helps individuals manage problems by changing the way they think and act by rewiring their reactions to stressful situations, for example.

After Layla’s breakdown, her colleagues came together to express their emotions about the war and many of her colleagues who expressed support for Israel, sent her messages of support when they heard her experiences of living through war in Iraq.

When asked about why people are likely to side with one group of people involved in a conflict, Rabya Mughal, a developmental psychologist said, “We think in binary and black and white terms. It starts during the cognitive process we learn as an infant – everything is categorised into ‘do and do not’ or ‘yes and no’ or ‘good and bad.’”

Mughal added, “It’s part of a process in the brain called integrative complexity – the ability to hold opposing truths in our heads at one time. When presented with a situation like Israel-Palestine, we tend to favour one side more than the other, when in reality there is more to it than picking a side.”

Being Part of a Marginalised Community

In response to the questionnaire about the impact of the violence in Gaza on mental health, one anonymous response said, “As a black person, it has brought up various distressing feelings relating to oppression and silencing of marginalised communities in Western cultures. The narratives that perpetuate systemic injustices is all too familiar with the experiences of the black community.” The respondent, 27, who wished to remain anonymous, described her religious views as Christian.

Dunleavy says wars in other countries can result in the triggering of personal trauma based on race and being othered. Mind, a mental health charity, reports racism can have impacts on the mind and body; it is known as racial trauma.

Symptoms include low self-esteem, feeling on edge and being unable to relax due to hypervigilance which develops as a result of looking out for threats or danger. When these feelings are triggered by seeing or hearing about racism towards someone else, it is known as historical trauma.

As Israel has been found to be practising apartheid in Palestine according to a United Nations human rights expert, the situation in Gaza may evoke previous global struggles for racial equality. In addition to this, when ethnic minorities living in the West see people who resemble them, such as many Palestinians who are people of colour, it may echo their experiences of being treated differently or unfairly.

While there is no specific recommended therapy for racial and historic trauma, some avenues of therapy include talking therapies and using treatments for trauma and PTSD, such as arts and creative therapies.

Another factor contributing to racial trauma is the fact that visible minorities may be more likely to be targeted as the number of hate crimes has risen across the UK since October 2023. By the end of October 2023, antisemitic hate crimes increased by 1,350% while Islamophobic hate crimes rose by 140% according to the Metropolitan Police.

Others, still, have been impacted by being arrested at protests or penalised for showing their support for Palestinians. The European Legal Support Center, an independent organisation that intervenes to end restrictions and criminalization of advocacy for Palestine, reported over 550 cases in which they provided legal advice and support to pro-Palestine supporters from October to December in the UK, Germany, France, The Netherlands, and Italy. 

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The Portrayal of the Violence in Gaza within the Media

“The Palestine-Israel situation has been presented very differently to that in Ukraine which is difficult to comprehend, it is akin to a moral injury. The Government, companies, institutions, universities, schools etc standing in solidarity with Ukrainians while being punitive or even criminalising support for Palestine is problematic, to say the least” said Dunleavy.

Since the violence in Gaza began, news organisations have struggled to report accurately on the Israel-Gaza war, according to Gretel Khan in her article published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism as a result of a large number of Palestinian journalists killed (over 100), the prevention of international reporters from reporting from the ground, and misinformation being posted by public officials amidst other reasons.

“After October 7th, it became very apparent that the community was immensely impacted by what was happening in Palestine,’’’ said Elchehimi, Clinical Counsellor and Clinical Director at Ruh, which is an online therapy platform that started as an Islamically-based mindfulness and contemplation app. Since Ruh launched their Palestine Mental Health Response in late October 2023, 560 mental health professionals volunteered their services to provide free therapy sessions internationally. 

However, some therapists have had to step back in the wake of burnout from vicarious trauma, “Unlike regular therapy where therapists are objective, the therapists are now also emotionally affected by the crisis. We had a few therapists recuse themselves from seeing clients as they couldn’t hear the stories anymore… we can only imagine the deep impact the genocide is having on the clients coming in with those stories, especially young children.”

“We are experiencing a sort of collective gaslighting with what is taking place… It’s not just what we are seeing on our screens, but at the same time, we’re being told our pain is not valid, the truth is not the truth, that what we are seeing on our phones is fiction… all of this impacts our mental health to a significant degree…” said Elchehimi. 

Ruh also trains mental health therapists to deliver a ‘healing circle’ in their community, a practice which originates from the First Nations people of Canada and among many tribes of Native Americans in the United States. Today, they are often used to provide a safe space in which people who have suffered similar trauma can come together and speak about their trauma.

Since October 2023, Ruh has facilitated over 50 healing circles attended by up to 138 attendees at settings such as mosques, schools, social groups, and those working in government roles and corporations. 

“Not only are we grieving, horrified, and traumatised by what we are seeing over and over again. We are also being fed a narrative by a powerful media machine with a political agenda. A narrative that is completely invalidating and facilitating the genocide itself. So those are the reasons we are seeing something very different with this particular catastrophe and crisis taking place,” said Elchehimi.

Those turning to social media to find out more about the scale of the violence in Gaza are more prone to secondary trauma which can occur from witnessing trauma or being closely connected to it without experiencing the trauma directly. It’s sometimes called vicarious trauma, according to Mind.

Recently, Tell Mama, a national project in the UK that records and measures anti-Muslim incidents in the United Kingdom published a resource on social media and mental and emotional health. They found that tone, language, and rhetoric on social media platforms can have short-, medium-, and long-term impacts on mental and emotional health, especially content that promotes harrowing pictures and videos, for example. This in turn results in increased anxiety, effects on mood and overall wellbeing. 

Tips for Mental Health

Dunleavy recommends sharing and talking to each other, using established self-care practices, and creating communities of support. She also recommends limiting time paid attention to the news to 30 minutes per day and switching off from all news outlets by 6pm.

If these steps are not heeded, Dunleavy warned, “Physical symptoms could manifest such as an upset tummy, headaches, and other psychosomatic symptoms.”

She added, “Many people report feeling overwhelmed. Having got there, step back and don’t allow yourself to get to that point. At that point, you can’t be fully functional or helpful.”


Sources

Al Jazeera Staff. “France Admits Torture during Algeria’s War of Independence.” Al Jazeera

Bendimerad, Rym. “Algeria’s War for Independence: 60 Years On.” Al Jazeera

Dodd, Vikram. “Antisemitic Hate Crimes in London up 1,350%, Met Police Say.” The Guardian News and Media

Instagram. “2023 in Recap.” European Legal Support Center

Kahn, Gretel. “The Israel-Hamas War Highlights the Power (and the Limits) of Open-Source Reporting.” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Mind Mental Health Charity. “Racism and Mental Health.” Mind

The NHS. “Causes – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” NHS Choices

The United Nations. “Israel’s 55-year occupation of Palestinian Territory is apartheid – UN human rights expert,” Office of the High Commission on Human Rights

Ruh Care Team. Palestine Mental Health Response. Ruh Care x Action for Palestine

Saric, Ivan. “Gaza civilian deaths outpacing those of other conflict zones.” Axios News

Tell Mama Team. “Social Media and Your Mental & Emotional Health at This Time.” Social Media and Your Emotional and Mental Health

Watson Brown Institute. “Costs of War: Iraqi Civilians.” Brown University

WebMD team. “Intergenerational Trauma: What to Know.” WebMD

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