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Israel-Hamas war takes toll on Israeli and Palestinian civilians' mental health


Hamas attacks have killed more than 1,400 people in Israel, and Israel's bombing campaign against Hamas has killed well over 4,500 people in Gaza. Thousands more have been injured on both sides. It all has mental health experts worried. They say that even if the war were to end tomorrow, people in the region would likely still be reeling from the emotional toll for years and months to come - and this on top of decades of prior traumas from war, conflict and deprivation. NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee joins us now. You've been talking to people who study all this stuff. What are they saying?

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Basically that they're concerned that there's going to be, as one researcher put it, a tsunami of mental health problems in the region for a while, you know, because studies on mass traumas have documented this the world over, including here in the U.S. I spoke with Dr. Sandro Galea. He's the dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, and he studied the mental health impacts of 9/11.

SANDRO GALEA: People in all of New York City and all the way including southern Connecticut, eastern new Jersey - so really radiating out from where the World Trade Center was - had more burden of post-traumatic stress and depression than one would have expected to find after these events.

CHATTERJEE: You know, they'd expected more people with PTSD and depression, but they hadn't expected that the rates would nearly double.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Fair to assume that it was people directly affected who went on to develop these symptoms?

CHATTERJEE: That's right, A. And if we think about the current conflict, the Israel-Gaza conflict, it's people whose loved ones have died or were kidnapped, people who've seen other people die and everyone who's lost their homes still trying to stay safe, get food, water, medicine. They're all at risk.

MARTÍNEZ: So tell us what mental health professionals in affected areas are actually seeing.

CHATTERJEE: So I spoke with Dr. Nira Kaplansky. She heads Israel's mental health crisis line, run by an organization called NATAL. And she told me that the helpline saw a huge surge in calls in the early hours and days after the attack. They had to staff up almost overnight. And in more recent days, she says, the people are calling describing symptoms that are classic sort of trauma-related symptoms, like intrusive thoughts about the attacks, nightmares, not being able to sleep, wanting to avoid situations that remind them of what they went through.

NIRA KAPLANSKY: I don't want to be where there is people around me and I don't know who they are. They want to be in an enclosed place. I can't hear explosions anymore, so I will go somewhere where - you know, far away.

CHATTERJEE: And she says that these are normal reactions to the traumatic circumstances, and that's what the crisis counselors tell people. And they can also provide some coping skills, connect people to therapy. NATAL has its own clinics. And Kaplansky expects that they will be hiring more staff for a while.

MARTÍNEZ: What about in Gaza?

CHATTERJEE: So right now, you know, understandably, the focus is trying to keep people safe and alive, get them the medical care they need. But numerous studies over the years have documented that Gaza has long had unusually high rates of mental health disorders like PTSD and depression. One study back in 2011 also found that a majority of people were struggling to recover because they hadn't had a break from violent conflict and the chronic stress of poverty. And I spoke with Palestinian American psychologist in California - her name is Iman Farajallah, and she studied the impact of war and conflict on children in Gaza. And she tells me that the diagnosis of PTSD doesn't even capture what people in Gaza struggle with.

IMAN FARAJALLAH: We cannot call this PTSD. It's a continuous trauma that is happening over and over and over again, 24/7. Ninety-nine percent, if not 100%, of the population of Gaza, they all suffer from continuous trauma.

CHATTERJEE: And the current conflict only worsens things.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee. Thank you very much.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you.

MARTÍNEZ: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, just those three numbers - 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.