Study: Most Sderot Kids Exhibit Post-traumatic Stress Symptoms

Eli Ashkenazi
Mijal Grinberg, Haaretz Correspondents
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Eli Ashkenazi
Mijal Grinberg, Haaretz Correspondents

Between 75 percent and 94 percent of Sderot children aged 4-18 exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress, says Natal, the Israel Center for Victims of Terror and War.

Natal's study, set to be released in the coming days, was based on a representative sample. The study found 28 percent of adults and 30 percent of children in Sderot have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study was conducted by Dr. Rony Berger, director of Natal's Community Services Department, and Dr. Marc Gelkopf, with the assistance of pollster Dr. Mina Tzemach.

The town of Sderot and the western Negev as a whole have been subjected to barrages of rockets launched by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip for over seven years.

Berger emphasizes the distinction between post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as problems sleeping and concentrating, and PTSD itself, which can interfere seriously with daily life. Berger says the study found school-age children had severe symptoms of anxiety and pointed to a correlation between parent and child anxiety.

According to Prof. Muli Lahad, the director of the Mashabim Community Stress Prevention Center at Tel Hai Academic College, evacuating children up to ages 11 or 12 without their parents will exacerbate post-traumatic symptoms.

Dalia Yosef, the director of Sderot's Hosen trauma center, says the number of children aged 1-6 identified as suffering from anxiety and in need of long-term treatment is rising. She said that as of last May, of 305 children in this age group who were identified as suffering from anxiety, only 30 percent needed long-term psychological treatment. The remainder received immediate treatment only.

In the last several months, more children have been in need of more extended care in order to prevent the development of PTSD. Since May, an additional 105 children, 70 percent of whom are now in need of extended psychological treatment, have been identified as suffering from trauma.

Yaron Ben Shimol, whose daughter Lior, 5, was injured on Friday when a Qassam rocket hit their neighbors' home while she was playing with their children, said she had been treated by a psychologist for anxiety before the incident. Lior is not alone: 120 children in Sderot are currently in long-term therapy for anxiety.

Yosef notes that some of the anxiety treatment being developed in Sderot and other communities near the border with Gaza focuses on the treatment of constant stresses, with no end in sight.

"It's a serious question - how do you treat and prevent post-traumatic stress when it is not 'post,'" she said. "We take existing models for treating stress and shape them for a situation where the threat does not pass. We work with parents on creating an environment for their child in which they continue to smile, to give love and to play, so that good, safe surroundings are created for everyone," Yosef said.

Yosef said that at Hosen, parents are given various tools to cope with anxiety, including breathing and relaxation techniques. The Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council, meanwhile, has modified the Monopoly board game to allow players to "fire" Qassams, as a way of reducing stress. It is all aimed at dealing with the situation as a long-term, ongoing one.

Expert: Don't take the children alone

According to Prof. Muli Lahad, evacuating children up to age 11 or 12 without their parents will exacerbate post-traumatic symptoms. When children are left alone, far from their communities, they imagine horrible things happening to their families left at home, he explained. The children are left with the feeling, fed by what they hear and see from the media, that everything has been destroyed, said Lahad.

"When the whole family is evacuated, the problems are much smaller, if we are talking about a short-term evacuation for rest and recuperation," he added.

According to research done by the Mashabim center in Upper Galilee communities after the Second Lebanon War, evacuation of an area under bombardment is not the top priority for residents, as is commonly thought. Most of those surveyed viewed preparation of bomb shelters as the responsibility of local authorities they take most seriously. Next in importance, respondents viewed as caring for the elderly and disabled, and then health services.

When asked about remaining in their communities without their children, the vast majority of Galilee residents were opposed.

"People who are not really interested in the effects of the evacuation are working thoughtlessly, and do not understand the price," said Lahad, who as a resident of Kiryat Shmona, lived the question himself.