For Dr Caesar Hakim, it’s almost a three-hour drive from Haifa, where he lives as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, to the West Bank where he is the director of a small clinic that provides therapy to local Palestinians. He travels in the unbearable Arab heat and on the way there he is stopped at checkpoints, questioned and searched by Israeli soldiers. Despite all this, Dr Hakim still returns day after day because of a new enemy threatening the Palestinians: a growing mental health crisis.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is one of the most important news stories in the world. The over 100- year conflict in which the two groups claim the same land has lead to all-out wars and attacks from both sides. In 1967 a six-day war broke out and by the end, Israel took control of all of Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — each was home to thousands of Palestinians. This left many Palestinians either displaced or under Israeli control.
What isn’t focused on in the news however, is that in Palestinian-populated areas like the West Bank and Gaza, there is a serious mental health crisis. These issues are often sidelined by the arguments over who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Even outside the Middle East and here in the UK, it is nearly impossible to bring up the topic of mental health or show concern towards Palestinians without extreme Zionists believing that you are supporting terrorists and anti-Semites. In Dr Hakim’s clinic, the question is irrelevant, the problems of mental health isn’t going away. Whilst also having to deal with the cultural issues that come from the area, Dr Hakim is now simultaneously facing the rise of patients who suffer from complex trauma.
Complex trauma is a form of trauma which like the name suggests is more elaborate and severe. Complex trauma is caused by a build up of traumatic events that occur on a prolonged or daily basis. It is most commonly seen in those suffering from an abusive relationship, especially where the person cannot escape. In order to properly help, the traumatised individual must be protected from the event causing the trauma. This, though, isn’t possible for most Palestinians due to the occupation and the restriction of movement — the Israeli West Bank Barrier is a potent example.
Every day Palestinians are at risk of being evicted by Israeli settlements, being searched by armed soldiers, detained, arrested and even killed. Recurring events like these surrounding you on a daily basis can lead to complex trauma, which if untreated can cause someone to develop irrational behaviour, disconnect from their surroundings, and suffer from severe anxiety and/or depressions.
In Gaza, years of conflict and poor quality of life has led to high rates of complex trauma throughout the region. With clashes on the border between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army, many Palestinians have been killed or severely injured. The World Health Organisation has registered that up to 20 per cent of Gaza’s population is likely to have serious mental health problems, and the number of those registering at mental health clinics is up by 70 per cent. For Children, this is even more common. According to Save The Children, 95 per cent of children in Gaza are reported to show symptoms of depression, anxiety and aggression; all signs of complex trauma.
You may be asking yourself, what does mental health have to do with the politics in the Middle East? Surely once we have solved the conflict then we can focus on the mental health crisis? — But this is a backwards approach. When a whole community is suffering from complex trauma, it can cause them to act and think irrationally, often violently.
Humans have the remarkable ability to adapt to any environment, even if that environment is dangerous and unhealthy. Those who remain in a traumatic environment where they feel like objects, can slowly become dangerous to themselves and those around them; a state of mind which is passed down from generation to generation. Ignoring the mental health crisis will only escalate the conflict and lead to more division and deaths. A traumatised population is a huge barrier in the way of rebuilding stability and finding a solution to the crisis.
What Dr Hakim and his team are trying to do and what we should should all be encouraging, is helping the Palestinian people deal with and process their traumas in the hope that it will help them find alternative, less violent ways of resistance. Complex trauma isn’t easy to understand but once you do, you can see how it affects countries caught in conflict and how facing these mental health issues could be a way to resolve some of the tension.