Mental health services have been neglected for decades by the health care system and successive Israeli governments. This systemic neglect is not without context. It derives from a social and cultural viewpoint characterized by a strong stigma around mental illness, exclusion of the mentally ill and a desire to distance them as much as possible from the fabric of life and the public sphere. When there is no physical manifestation of damage, many people seem to have difficulty perceiving mental illness as a health issue, and understanding the severity of the situation and the mental distress to the individual and those around him or her.
Mental illness – whether a chronic condition or one caused by a traumatic event and requiring treatment – affects many families and households in Israel. Its impact is felt on the personal and collective level as a result of events that leave scars – from military combat induced post-traumatic stress to sexual assault – along with other manifestations of anxiety and depression, suicide among teens, young adults and the elderly who suffer from loneliness, and many other types of psychological suffering. The mental health system is now facing an unprecedented wave of cries for help – the ramifications of the year of coronavirus and the barrages of rockets fired during the recent fighting with Hamas.
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The rise in calls for help exposes the inadequacy and neglect of mental health services in Israel. It also exposes how common life-disrupting psychological distress is. Moreover, there are hundreds of thousands of families who are in dire straits because of the mental illness of a family member who do not receive an adequate response to their needs.
Mental health services in Israel suffer from understaffing and bottlenecks all along the way – from basic treatment in the community (waiting months to as much as a year to be seen by a psychologist or a psychiatrist) to frameworks designed to avoid hospitalization, post-hospitalization treatments and treatment in the patient’s home.
The result is that too many Israelis receive no response to their mental health needs. Lacking services to treat patients and stop their decline, some will arrive for lack of choice at the last and most difficult stage for treatment: psychiatric hospitalization. And they do indeed arrive, in masses. The psychiatric departments and hospitals suffer from overcrowding and poor infrastructure.
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The choice of the new health minister, Nitzan Horowitz, to begin his tour of the health care system with a visit to Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Bat Yam and his statement about making mental health a top priority are unprecedented and important steps. Now he must make good on his declaration by allocating funds and personnel and giving the greatest possible attention to the issue. Most importantly, we must no longer turn a blind eye to the suffering of the mentally ill.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.