Treating Trauma in Israel and Worldwide

Even on days when no Kassam rockets are falling, no wildfires raging, no air raid sirens blaring, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC) is in full-on disaster response mode. The continuous nature of the organization’s work is perhaps best summarized by a quote about the population of Israel that Talia Levanon, ITC’s director, attributes to a colleague of hers, “We’re not post-traumatic,” she says, “we’re still in the trauma.”

Talia Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, speaks to a gathering of health professionals at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Talia Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, speaks to a gathering of health professionals at the NYU Langone Medical Center.

ITC was established by UJA-Federation of New York early on in the second intifada. At the time, Levanon explained, there were scattered mental health programs serving particular populations in Israel, but the goal was to create a more coordinated response to disaster when it struck. The coalition’s formation “would not have happened if UJA-Federation hadn’t brought different Israeli service providers to the table,” Levanon told an audience of mental health and other health professionals at the NYU Langone Medical Center on October 27th. “Sometimes it takes an outsider to say that you need to recognize your strengths and weaknesses.”

In the decade since its inception, the scope of ITC’s programs has certainly grown, as have the ranks of its collaborators; it currently works with nearly 100 non-profits, municipalities, federations, resilience centers and hospitals. Early in its existence, the organization had its hands full simply providing direct care to individuals, families, and neighborhoods affected by acts of terrorism, and training mental health professionals to recognize and treat the signs of trauma in both children and adults. Now its tactics have become far more proactive than reactive, and its scope has expanded to include working with government ministries to help shape policy, training businesses in disaster preparedness, and making sure that people don’t just get the help they need in the days and weeks following a crisis, but in the months and years ahead as well.

Dr. Charles Marmar, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center and the moderator of last week's talk, especially lauded ITC's holistic approach to trauma care. “One of the things that’s particularly impressive about their work is that they target not only the individual and the family that suffers a trauma, but the community and the country,” he said.

Lessons to Share with the World

In terms of trauma care and disaster response, Israel is in a unique position among the nations of the world. Levanon told the audience how the entire country is within range of rocket attacks by its enemies, and civilians are often afforded less than a minute of warning to take shelter. In the cities closer to the Gaza border, rockets have been falling regularly for over ten years. And even when victims of an attack think the painful experiences are behind them, media coverage of a new attack, or even the prisoner exchange that brought about Gilad Shalit’s release can trigger a flood of memories.

“They have a lot more experience with trauma than we do, sadly, and they’ve learned a lot from that,” says Dr. Samuel Klagsburn, the founder of the Four Winds Hospital in Katonah, New York, who was one of the chairs of Thursday’s event. “The world really benefits from their lessons.”

Levanon and her team have taken these lessons to Sri Lanka, India, France, the United States, and most recently Japan, in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster.

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