Israeli Survey: Almost Half of Sderot Preteens Show Symptoms of PTSD

The study is based on a questionnaire given to 7th and 8th graders in 2007-8, who'd been through thousands of rocket attacks from Gaza.

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Nearly half of Sderot middle schoolers surveyed by local researchers showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a study published this month.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Adolescent Health, is based on a questionnaire given to 154 seventh and eighth graders (aged 12-13 ) in a state secular school. The data was collected in 2007-2008, when there had already thousands of rockets launched at the area from Gaza, and 15 people killed or wounded in the city.

After analyzing their answers, it was found that 43.5 percent of the children were displaying clinical signs of PTSD.

The study was conducted by a team led by Dr. Rony Berger, a clinical psychologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who also serves as the director of community services at Natal, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War.

Researchers also determined that proper intervention in school can successfully reduce the symptoms of PTSD in preteens.

The researchers divided the children into two groups: 107 of the pupils underwent a therapy course developed for the study and delivered by teachers in the school; the other group of 47 children had no intervention.

The therapy involved weekly 90-minute meetings with teachers to reduce tension and fear. The meetings were held over 16 weeks, between November 2007 and March 2008. These lessons included raising awareness of how the body responds to stress; learning techniques to relieve tension; making the pupils more aware of their feelings; and strengthening the connection between sensations and emotions.

The pupils were also taught ways to control their emotions, breathing techniques, guided imagery and methods of distracting themselves and coping with anger and loss. The teachers discussed with the pupils ways to improve their communication with others and how to turn a crisis situation into an opportunity.

The intervention had a dramatic effect, leading to a significant drop in the display of PTSD symptoms among the children. The chances of recovery among those who had the therapy were deemed 2.7 times higher than among those in the control group. Of the 48 pupils who had been diagnosed with PTSD in the intervention group, only 13 were still exhibiting symptoms (27.1 percent ) four months later. Among the 19 children in the control group who had exhibited symptoms of PTSD, 12 (63.9 percent ) were still exhibiting symptoms after four months.

"When you take into account that intervention by teachers is more accessible, more economical and lends itself less to stigmas, the findings are important for the purpose of getting broad help for children suffering from trauma," the researchers concluded.

There have been several studies documenting the emotional distress among Sderot residents. In one work published in 2008, high levels of depression were recorded among the city's teenagers. Another study awaiting publication points to PTSD symptoms among 33 percent of small children growing up in Sderot.

Children at Sderot's Science School engaging in a playground game simulating rockets falling, Nov. 2012.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Recess at school. Kids in Sderot playing 'Missile attack:' One makes a noise like a bomb and everybody runs and hides. Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz
Tami Shadadi surveying the damage to her house in Sderot after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza.Credit: Reuters