Living with the constant possibility of rocket attacks has had significant emotional effects on the residents of southern Eretz Yisrael, particularly the children.
“Our clinical research found that 70% of children [in areas heavily affected by rocket attacks] suffer from … symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” said Yotam Degan, Director of Community Outreach for Netal, in an interview with Hamodia. “20-25% of those have PTSD.”
Netal is an organization helping children deal with trauma issues resulting from rocket attacks.
The most common sign of PTSD is severe anxiety, often accompanied by flashbacks, uncontrollable thoughts about the trauma experienced, inability to concentrate, headaches, sleep disorders, and several other symptoms.
“For a child to have trauma issues for six months after a spate of attacks is normal,” said Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Olefsky, menahel of Ashdod’s Bais Yaakov elementary school. “If a child continues to have issues after that, he or she needs additional help.”
Following the first spate of rocket attacks on Ashdod several years ago, Rabbi Olefsky engaged Netal’s therapists to work with the students of the Bais Yaakov school.
“More than 10 percent needed serious help then,” said Rabbi Olefsky about the first Gaza incursion. He said that people are far calmer about the latest wave of rocket attacks, largely because Iron Dome intercepts the vast majority of the rockets, but also because Ashdod has gotten “used to” such things.
However much people’s ability to cope has improved, though, Rabbi Olefsky says that life under fire still takes its toll.
“People are tense,” he said. “They always feel as if something could happen. Any loud sound makes people turn. It could be a rocket or a motorcycle.”
“In the south we are raising a generation of ‘post-traumatic kids,’” said Vivan Reutlinver, a clinical social worker and psychologist who has been working with Netal in communities such as Sderot and Ashdod for the last eight years.
Reutlinver described how, even in times of relative peace, signs of trauma are apparent in children from the south. She said girls in cities that have sustained regular rocket attacks show markedly less ability to concentrate during exams than their counterparts in other areas.
“The body functions differently under stress,” she said. “We are more confused. Stress affects our memory and our ability to focus.”
The normal development of children is affected as well, says Reutlinver. The inability to feel safe in their environment inhibits a child’s sense of self-confidence and independence.
“Many are hesitant to leave home or go out to play with friends,” she said. “In more extreme cases, they don’t want to be alone even for a short while. They are afraid to take showers … or sleep alone.”
Reutlinver told Hamodia that for children under seven, the level of fear mostly depends on the reactions of adults. Because of that, Netal works extensively with parents and teachers, giving them strategies to help children feel safe.
When working with older children, Netal uses cognitive therapy as a way of helping them deal with their fears. This includes showing them that some fears are unrealistic, and talking out various scenarios so that children feel that they will know what to do, should sirens sound. This knowledge gives them a sense of control, making them feel safer.
“We teach kids that it is healthy and normal to feel scared when there is a siren,” said Reutlinver. “That is the body’s way of helping us deal with an emergency. But once we are safe we should relax and go about our lives as usual.”
Mr. Degan says that his work for Netal has shown him interesting things about human nature.
“In Sderot you see children with resilience. … It is amazing to see how people can go from emergency situations back to normal life.”
Degan spoke about what he referred to as post-traumatic growth, something that Netal tries to stress;
“You know what they say: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. When we undergo tough experiences we can grow from them; some kind of learning happens, and we become stronger.”