The Guardian • Issue #2081

Gaza, trauma and you

The Guardian Interviews Professor Susan Rees

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2081
Rally for Palestine in Boorloo/Perth on Sunday 26 November 2023.

Rally for Palestine in Boorloo/Perth on Sunday 26 November 2023.

A lot of people are involved in support for Palestinian people on the West Bank and Gaza in Australia, with ongoing attendance at rallies, lobbying politicians to speak out more forcefully, and donations (the Communist Party of Australia recommends the Australian union aid organisation APHEDA*).

People living in Australia with connections to Gaza are also affected, so The Guardian interviewed Professor Susan Rees, a senior academic and researcher in psychiatry and trauma at the University of NSW to see what people here can do to help.

Guardian: Which people in Australia will be most affected by the attack on Gaza?

Rees: People with family and friends in Gaza are most impacted in terms of their mental health. We have documented accounts of extreme fear and anxiety experienced by Australians who have been unable to contact family members in Gaza. There are also those whose family members have been killed or injured. These people will require skilled intervention and support.

Others impacted have previous exposure to any war particularly but not only in the broader region, for example from the Middle East including Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. What’s happening in Gaza will make some people experience severe traumatic responses and memories of past bombing, having to flee their homes, having homes bombed or burned, and extreme fear. Women and young people are more likely to have more severe traumatic experiences following direct or indirect exposure to war and conflict.

Guardian: Are there degrees of these things – are some people only slightly traumatised?

Rees: Some people are more resilient than others, and despite having the same level of exposure or connection to the trauma, they may respond better than another person. Factors such as the severity and duration of the traumatic event, prior trauma, gender, young age and preexisting mental illness could make a severe response more likely.

Guardian: What can people do to help affected Australians with links to Palestine?

Rees: It is useful to acknowledge and validate someone’s experience of the traumatic event and reassure them that feelings of sadness, anger, fear and anxiety, for example, are normal in the face of the horror and injustices they are witnessing. Show understanding and encourage them to seek professional support if they are not coping well or are having concerning symptoms, which are not normal.

Encourage them to be informed about what is happening, but avoid being exposed to images and accounts of the war for long periods in each day, or before bed because it can interfere with sleep and make life worse. Urge them to seek help and stay connected with supportive family, friends, or their community. Reassure people they are not alone with how they are feeling.

Keeping physically active is a part of good mental health. Social action such as rallies and vigils can also be helpful because people emotionally connected to the geographically distant war can otherwise feel extremely powerless. Taking social action and feeling the sense of unity that accompanies social action, can be empowering and therefore beneficial for mental wellbeing.

It is important to stress that expression of anger (no matter how legitimate) can lead to aggression and violence in groups; and that can be extremely harmful to physical and mental safety and wellbeing.

Guardian: What sort of actions should community organisations like schools and hospitals be taking?

It is helpful for hospitals and schools to be trauma-informed, and that means being mindful of the mental health impacts of the current war on people in their communities, knowing how to identify those at greatest need for mental health support, and how to intervene, including where to refer them for professional support. Places for counselling and referral can include mental health helplines.

Try to find services that also offer support in their first language. It is useful for organisations such as hospitals and schools to use messaging to their respective communities about the widespread psychological impact of trauma from this war, and where individuals can seek confidential support.

Guardian: What sort of signs of trauma should we be looking for?

Rees: Trauma related to war can manifest in different ways. Symptoms to look out for include having trouble coping with daily activities, feeling excessively anxious, nervous, angry, and/or having trouble sleeping. Some people may feel more enervated and depressed. PTSD symptoms are common in those who have been previously exposed to war or stories of war from family members. These symptoms include intrusive thoughts or memories of the trauma, nightmares, being easily startled, or having greater than usual problems with concentrating.

Interviewer: Floyd Kermode

* apheda.org.au

For helplines and information, go to healthdirect.gov.au/mental-health-helplines

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