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Generations Traumatized Under Occupation

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    Generations Traumatized Under Occupation By Isabelle Humphries Oct. 10, 2005 http://www.islamonline.net/English/Science/2005/10/article03.shtml On October 10,
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2005
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      Generations Traumatized Under Occupation
      By Isabelle Humphries
      Oct. 10, 2005
      http://www.islamonline.net/English/Science/2005/10/article03.shtml


      On October 10, 2005, international campaigners launch a campaign to
      try to shake the stigma over seeking help in mental health related
      issues. In the following article, Isabelle Humphries highlights the
      extent of suffering causing mental health difficulties over
      generations in Palestine, and considers community initiatives working
      to address this overwhelming issue.

      Continuous Dispossession

      The elderly woman visibly folded into herself as she described the
      behavior of her nephew's children in Jenin. "You should see what the
      noise of the planes has done to them. They are too frightened to sleep
      separately, so they all sleep in the same bed, huddled up close
      together. The poor little things."

      Dispossession has tailed the lives of Umm Khalil and her family over
      generations, a typical tale of how trauma is rooted in the lives of
      uprooted Palestinians. In 1922 her tenant farming family was kicked
      from their land as an Ottoman landlord (not Palestinian) sold it to
      Zionist Jews meticulously preparing for the takeover of the land. By
      1948, Umm Khalil was married with three young daughters when all were
      forced to flee the village of Al-Mujaydil to nearby Nazareth.

      Without enough food to feed her daughters, Umm Khalil didn't know what
      had happened to her husband for months until he returned from the
      prison labor camp to which he had been taken. "In the first days we
      just kept worrying about what had happened to the bodies of those
      killed in Al-Mujaydil. We believed we could smell them even though we
      were six kilometers away in Nazareth. But they wouldn't give us
      permission to go back to bury them. We were frightened more men would
      be killed, so in the end the women went. They were unable to dig
      graves, so they just sprinkled earth on top. Some of the women were
      literally driven "out of their minds" by seeing body parts strewn
      across the ground."

      This is no trauma long gone, but fresh in Umm Khalil's mind; an
      inseparable story from what is happening to her relatives in Jenin
      today. Many of her family became West Bank refugees, and as her own
      children and grandchildren stand around her today, they know what is
      happening to their cousins, one of whom is being kept as a political
      prisoner in a jail not so far away. The Nazareth neighborhood that
      they live in is 90 percent refugees from Al-Mujaydil. "I used to speak
      with the grandchildren about what happened," says Umm Khalil, "but
      now I don't do it so much. They get so angry about what they have lost."

      Gaza: Where to Begin?

      Tackling mental health issues is a challenge in any community, but
      where do we start in an overcrowded strip of land where military
      assault is a daily reality for every person?

      While the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) deals with
      1,500 individual clients a year, the project addresses the problem of
      trauma with a wider approach. "Psychological trauma and distress in
      Gaza cannot be divided into isolated cases. We cannot begin to reduce
      people's suffering if we don't make the link between mental health and
      human rights," says GCMHP director Dr. Salah Abdel Shafi. "There can
      be no well-being when people are oppressed; thus, we must look to
      expose the root causes of stress in the community."

      One of the projects that GCMHP runs is community clinics, with sites
      selected to be accessible to large numbers in the highly populated
      residential areas around, without dangers of travel and impossibility
      of closure. In addition to providing a suitable environment for
      individual therapy, centers provide facilities for community sessions,
      meetings, and training. The building is designed with the needs of
      specific therapy in mind, e.g., green areas have been created for
      children's play sessions.

      GCMHP focuses its work on trying to raise awareness of the suffering
      caused by mental distress, and to spread an understanding of coping
      mechanisms. Effectively tackling a problem requires a professional
      needs assessment, and GCMHP has an extensive network of professionals
      working both in Gaza and in foreign universities researching
      Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The results of this work are used for
      international advocacy, raising awareness of the depth of community
      suffering and stress caused by the ongoing occupation, but the
      research is also central to help the development of situation specific
      coping mechanisms. From specialized research focusing on vulnerable
      groups such as children or former detainees, the GCMHP team is able to
      design the most suitable ways to work with the community to ease
      collective pain and stress.

      So how does this work in practice? “We are under no illusions that
      we can somehow "solve" the mental health crisis in Gaza, but we
      believe that by increasing awareness of coping mechanisms within the
      community, we can start to make a real difference in many people's
      lives," says GCMHP director Dr. Salah Abdel Shafi. Research has shown
      that only 30 percent of mental health problems are detected by GPs,
      showing a clear need for training amongst primary health care workers.
      Psychological distress often surfaces in physical illnesses, meaning
      that people seek help from their GP not a psychiatrist. GCMHP is
      working with primary health care workers to provide training in
      identifying the symptoms of mental suffering.

      Another example of community work is GCHMP's meetings with religious
      leaders. People listen to and seek advice from religious authorities
      as respected elders, and thus it is essential that leaders are able to
      assist their communities.

      Children are a central focus for GCMHP, so training and working
      alongside teachers and school counselors is a large part of the work.
      “Children may not verbalize their fear and distress, and it comes
      out in symptoms such as bedwetting, insomnia, and loss of
      concentration. For example, if teachers are not aware that lack of
      concentration demonstrates that the child is traumatized, the child
      may be punished and then the situation becomes even worse,” stresses
      Dr. Salah Abdel Shafi. The project conducts collective therapy such as
      art classes in schools, and encourages parents and teachers to find
      positive ways to ease children's distress.

      Women and Mental Health

      It is impossible to deal with the problem of domestic violence for
      women in Gaza in isolation from their experience of political
      violence. The organization has a specific department addressing
      women's psychological needs and dedicated to empowering them to
      overcome the effects of trauma. The project offers therapy and
      counseling on a psychological level, but also legal counseling and
      practical vocational training to allow women to have new interests and
      develop possibilities of economic independence. GCMHP runs Women's
      Empowerment Centers in Beach Camp, Gaza City, Deir El Balah, and
      Rafah, where women can seek the ongoing support and help that they
      require.

      Ex-prisoners are another group to which GCMHP pays particular
      attention. Many thousands of Gazans have at one time or another been
      held as political detainees in Israeli jails, and such tortuous
      experiences can have a lasting and terrifying impact. The stigma
      attached to discussing mental health makes it particularly difficult
      for men to seek help, for they often mistakenly believe that to
      express fear is a sign of weakness. GCMHP works to challenge taboos in
      order to reach out to this group who are often suffering from severe
      Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

      Breaking Through the Barriers

      There are other associations that deal with mental health issues, from
      large medical services such as the Red Crescent, to other specific
      centers like the Palestinian Counseling Center based from East
      Jerusalem. "As a direct result of the psychological trauma from
      military occupation, our work is focused on the problems created for
      the average person in an abnormal situation," explains director Rana
      Nashashibi. "The effects of suffering direct military assault or
      living with the everyday frustration of not knowing if you can reach
      school or work are psychologically debilitating in the extreme." The
      PCC provides counseling and mental health services for the kinds of
      problems that occur within any society, but the focus is on proactive
      support for collective trauma and distress within the whole of society.

      The PCC is conducting extensive research into the damaging effects of
      a life ruled by checkpoints, humiliation, and frustrations of closure.
      "We want to be one step ahead in helping people, rather than always
      being reactive and merely dealing with the resulting effects. We want
      to use our research to develop specific coping mechanisms and
      strategies to spread a deeper understanding among the grassroots and
      professionals within the community," said Nashashibi.

      Imagine life behind walls, both walls that physically exist, and
      imaginary walls that symbolize the limits of opportunities living
      inside a land under occupation. This is the daily life of a
      Palestinian; "disengagement" is irrelevant. Without an economy and
      opportunities, there is no hope and no future. In such a situation,
      services provided by community support networks are essential.

      To find out more, or to send much needed support, please check Web
      sites at

      www.gcmhp.net

      www.pcc-jer.org

      ** Isabelle Humphries is a freelance journalist working on a PhD on
      internal refugees in the Galilee. For more details regarding the
      project contact her at isabellebh2004 @ yahoo.co.uk


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