October 7 has traumatized Israel as a society – expert

Science and Health

The largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust stunned us all, in Israel and the Diaspora, and more than four months later, the war against Hamas – Operation Swords of Iron – is still raging. While Jews in the Diaspora shudder over the surge of antisemitism following October 7, many Israelis talk about a nation in trauma.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Danny Brom, founding director of Metiv, the Israel Psychotrauma Center, relativizes the notion that Israel is traumatized as a society. “The energy here remains vibrant,” he insists. “On October 7, everything changed. Suddenly we didn’t feel protected. Everyone knows someone who was killed or kidnapped. People are depressed, but at the same time the enormous outpouring of volunteering has given Israelis a sense of purpose and meaning. The question is how to contain and channel this positive energy.”

Over the past 30 years, Metiv has led the research, development, and implementation of innovative methods for treating psychological trauma in Israel. Its expert staff has treated army veterans, survivors of terror attacks, survivors of childhood abuse and neglect, and more. Based at Jerusalem’s Herzog Hospital, Metiv offers support to parents and teachers, helping children deal with trauma and the unique Peace of Mind program, in which IDF veterans receive time and space to process their combat experiences, such as time spent in Jewish communities worldwide. Metiv has also provided training and accreditation in trauma treatment to thousands of therapists in Israel and across the world. 

Since October 7, demand for Metiv’s treatment and training has skyrocketed, and Brom is looking ahead to the long-term challenge of helping Israel to heal, recover, and thrive. “I’m working with colleagues on how to create more community resilience. How we can hold each other together,” says the Dutch-born expert in psychotherapeutic methods for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “The message that everyone needs treatment weakens people. Paradoxically, I speak less about trauma and more about the need to adapt to survival mode while remaining efficient. The question should be how to get out of survival mode – now is the time for the language of resilience and coping.”

During the first weeks of the war, hundreds of Israelis called Metiv, saying they needed intervention to prevent PTSD. “They were talking about stress, sleeping disorders, shortness of breath, worry… but in most cases, these phenomena pass naturally in time. For the majority, the approach of emphasizing PTSD is misleading. Now they start to count their symptoms: ‘I had a nightmare because my son is in the army – do I have PTSD?’ There are people who need therapy, but certainly not everyone. And we’re not even ‘post’ – the war is still going on.

Dr. Danny Brom (credit: Courtesy)

“Only if you are totally overwhelmed and incapable of communicating or functioning is there a need for help. The majority of people don’t need it. And it’s not true that if we don’t treat you now, it’ll be too late. There’s a suitable treatment later if it’s not absolutely urgent right now.” 

On the other hand, he notes, “We have seen a number of people from the Supernova festival, residents of the South, and soldiers who haven’t been able to deal with what they’ve seen.”

People need people

In the US, experience following mass school shootings has shown the importance of bringing in teams of psychologists to deal with the ongoing reverberations. Israel has a history of terror attacks, but nothing on this scale. Terrorism, as the term suggests, is a form of psychological warfare. The most important thing right now is to be with other people, to hug and communicate with them, Brom asserts. “Sometimes you feel overwhelmed by things that you don’t want others to see. If these images come up, they have to be dealt with,” he says. “You don’t necessarily have to talk immediately. It’s important not to be pushed, but to let the natural physical and psychological processes happen.” 

Brom foresees logistical hurdles in dealing with the psychological ramifications of this war. “The mental health system in Israel was and remains neglected. The new trend is to create resilience centers, but they’ve gone the wrong way and become treatment centers. There’s an overfocus on the treatment aspect. Most children don’t need psychologists – they need their teachers and parents to be with them and help them get through it,” he says.  

Treating hostages

Brom rejects the notion that every returning hostage will be traumatized for life. “I’ve worked with Holocaust survivors and people who have been tortured or undergone sadistic sexual abuse, and I see that they can cope with a lot of horrible stuff. It’s not necessarily about psychopathology. We have to be careful about talking about people being broken. Most of those who were children in the Holocaust have dealt reasonably well. Many rebuilt their lives, became professionals, and coped in positive ways. There’s always distress, but that doesn’t mean they cannot function.”

Several of the released hostages appeared to be traumatized in recent media interviews. 

“They will have to rebuild their trust in other people. That’s what you need when in severe distress – someone you can trust, cry in front of, and feel guilt, anger, fear…then slowly go out again into the world. We have to prepare ourselves to allow them to heal, and this usually happens by being in a warm, supportive environment that will not pressurize them but allow them to process what they’ve been through at their own pace.” 

Some psychologists say that the best thing to do is to recount what happened, Brom says. “Usually it happens by itself,”  he notes. “When people feel safe, the memories will come up – whether in dreams or spontaneous conversation. If you have someone you really trust, you’ll be able to speak. 

“The fact that these memories do come up is a sign that people feel safe enough to let that happen. This process could take weeks, months, or even years.”  

The process of grieving – especially by a parent – can be a long-term one, he says.

“The issue of guilt is a complicated one. ‘Why did I survive and others didn’t?’ We also see this in Holocaust survivors and combat soldiers,” he says. “In children, we see it stronger – they often blame themselves.”

Israel has some experience when it comes to treating released prisoners of war but not civilian hostages,  Brom points out. 

“In the past, I’ve worked with people kidnapped for money in Mexico and Europe, which was very frightening, but they were treated well [in captivity] because they were worth a lot of money. In Israel’s case, the people doing it don’t care about human life – but they do care about their own interests,” he says. “The hostages are being horribly abused physically and psychologically, especially the women. We know this from those released. When you are in severe physical distress, it’s easier to be swayed by disinformation. When the terrorists told hostages that their relatives were dead or Israel had given up on saving them, this had a harsh effect. While being tortured, their minds are open to whatever their kidnappers say. You become attached to your abuser, even if you don’t want to. 

“For a long time, psychotherapists didn’t understand why people say they miss their abuser. Now it’s called the Stockholm syndrome – almost a hormonal, physical phenomenon involving stress hormones such as oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone,’ which confuses the mind. It’s not masochistic, and we must be careful not to misinterpret it..”   

Soldiering on

Every year, thousands of discharged IDF soldiers face the difficult transition back to civilian life in Israel. “They realize what combat has done to them and the need to process their experiences,” Brom says. “It’s not about pathology but rather adaptation.

“Those who stay in full-fledged survival mode for elongated periods should be treated for PTSD, But there are also much milder symptoms, such as the following example: a former combat soldier who would not sit in a restaurant with his back to the door because when you’re in a dangerous situation, you have to be alert. There are many similar small signs – they are far more prevalent than people realize.”

Metiv has been running the Peace of Mind program since 2007, working with groups of 15 to 20 IDF veterans who served together in high-risk combat units and sorely need a place and time to process their combat experiences. 

Led by two therapists, the intervention includes approximately 65 hours of group counseling over nine months, and 12 individual sessions for those needing further care.

Many of the group therapeutic workshops are held overseas, where the unit is hosted by a Jewish community, with the community supporting the therapeutic process by creating a safe, quiet, and supportive environment. 

“About 200 groups have already been hosted by Jewish communities in North America and Europe. It does a lot of good for the soldiers, of course, but it also has a positive effect on communities. It brings them closer to Israel and strengthens them,” says Brom. “Helping others is part of resilience. We want to reach out and create training programs for community leaders on how to create circles of support within the community. The rise in antisemitism is creating fear for people’s well-being, and communities need to organize themselves to maintain a healthy environment.” 

The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines “peace of mind” as “a feeling of being safe or protected.” As a society and as individuals, it is perhaps what we in Israel – and in the Diaspora – need now more than anything. 

For more information about Metiv, go to metiv.org/en/home/.