Trapped: the Mental Health Crisis in Palestine

Physical security. Mobility. Being able to protect your children. These, among many others, are human rights that Palestinians have been deprived of by the Israeli occupation. All people, Jews and non-Jews have the right to live with jurisdiction over their own lives, contrary to the state of Israel’s discrimination against non-Jews. Criticisms of the state of Israel’s human rights violations are not synonymous with criticism of Jews for being Jewish, or anti-Semitism. There’s a heavy weight associated with not being in control of your own future; a very human, very real suffocation linked with finite horizons. Advocacy for this human right is the stewardship of all people, for all people, Jews, and non-Jews alike. The mental illness crisis in Palestine is a result of not having control of one’s own future. Some severe traumas are illustrated by Israeli imprisonments, and fettered mobility are among the evidence for Palestine leading the Middle East in mental illness disorders [1]. 

Twenty-three percent of all Palestinians are affected by post traumatic stress disorder, and a staggering fifty-four percent of their children live with PTSD [2, 3]. By comparison, PTSD affects, on average, about seven percent of the United States population [4]. There was an eighteen percent rise in depression during the first five years of the Israeli blockade, and as expected, suicide rates, attempts, and self-harm spiked in Palestine as well [3]. The Palestinian mental illness crisis is consistent with oppression by the Israeli occupation. Child arrests, public humiliation, military raids on homes, Israeli checkpoints and aggression, restrictions on mobility and healthcare, and unpredictable physical security are all factors contributing to a steep incline in mental health disorders in Palestine. Though PTSD runs rampant amongst Palestinians, “There is no ‘post’ because the trauma is repetitive and ongoing and continuous” [2]. The subsequent trauma from exposure to violence is perpetual and unrelenting. 

Israel’s unjust imprisonment of Palestinian children is among its most severe human rights abuses. Solitary confinement, sexual assault, and torture are some of the various tactics the Israeli military employs to demean Palestinians. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has reported Israeli soldiers arresting children during evening raids, and detaining them without notifying their parents. One report states “…an estimated 7,000 [children] aged from 12 to 17 years, but sometimes as young as 9, have been arrested, interrogated and detained since 2002” [4]. Children in these prisons are subjected to sexual assault, physical abuse, solitary confinement, and limited access to toilets, food and water. To exacerbate degradation, Israeli soldiers will interrogate Palestinian children, speaking only in Hebrew, and often will require them to sign confessions in Hebrew as a precursor to being released [4]. 

PTSD, depression and anxiety, correlate with the feelings of powerlessness induced by Israeli arrests and imprisonments. Not only do these abuses direct physical abuse, intimidation, and emotional abuse towards imprisoned children, but are used to cut off Palestinian youth from their families and invoke feelings of helplessness in their adult relatives. Being unable to protect one’s children is a coercive tactic used to keep Palestinian families on their toes, never feeling completely secure or autonomous. In a survey of traumatic events Palestinian children have experienced, fifty-seven percent witnessed the arrest or kidnapping of someone or a friend, and 39.4 expericenced beating and humiliation by the Israeli army. Nearly half of children who are exposed to these war traumas report clinical levels of post-traumatic stress [5]. 

Feeling trapped, hopeless, and helpless is the reality of Palestinian life and prison and arrest trauma is just one piece of this power struggle. The Israeli blockade in Gaza gives insight into the sense of being trapped: electricity cuts, threats of Israeli aggression, chronic malnutrition, unemployment and restricted access to mobility and healthcare. Palestinians are not allowed to manage their own lives. The anticipation of power cuts and Israeli aggression are a perpetual worry that produces high levels of anxiety. Chronic malnutrition is a result of poverty and an 85% unemployment rate, that Israel could relieve by increasing freedom of movement for Gaza’s private sector [6].

But perhaps the most pressing and dangerous restriction, the economic blockade has facilitated very limited access to medical supplies, “ halt[ing] shipments of essential medicines” and making it incredibly difficult to receive specialized medical training. “…nearly 50 percent of Gaza Strip’s medical equipment is outdated and the average wait for spare parts is approximately six months,” nearly a third of medical disposables are regularly unavailable, which makes treatments such as chemotherapy, “haphazard at best” [7]. 

Given that specialized treatment is unavailable in Gaza, Palestinians are frequently referred to professionals in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and occasionally Jordan. Israeli authorities require Palestinians to chase permit approval to travel outside of the strip for healthcare, a stringent and risky process patients have died pursuing. Responsible for this draconian access to healthcare and mobility, Israel holds the keys to the outside world for Gaza, and this has induced a “complete loss of hope” [8]. Essentially trapped in a huge prison, many Palestinians feel their only escape is suicide [7]. Insecurity and helplessness takes a ponderous psychological toll, manifesting itself in Palestinians in Gaza as “anxiety, depression, epilepsy, aggression, insomnia, neurosis, schizophrenia, total exhaustion, drug-induced conditions and post-traumatic stress disorder” [6]. 

The Israeli occupation permeates and controls many facets of Palestinian life, perhaps most significantly, their autonomy and self-sufficiency. The anticipation of dependency and lack of control over your own life, is backbreaking for mental health. Though only a few of the regulations of basic human freedoms, the traumas outlined impress a sense of being trapped and not in control. Palestinian horizons are narrow and fixed, by Israel, and embodied in severe and widespread mental illness. 

  1. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0169575
  2. https://qz.com/1521806/palestines-head-of-mental-health-services-says-ptsd-is-a-western-concept
  3. https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2017/5/12/mental-health-in-palestine-among-worlds-worst
  4. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp
  5. http://www.hsj.gr/medicine/the-relationship-between-war-trauma-ptsd-depression-and-anxiety-among-palestinian-children-in-the-gaza-strip.php?aid=11302
  6. http://apps.who.int/gb/Statements/Report_Palestinian_territory/Report_Palestinian_territory-en.pdf
  7. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/06/decade-siege-gaza-health-sector-nears-collapse-170620082825720.html

8. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/gazans-have-survived-years-of-war-now-depression-is-killing-them/2018/06/18/e0bbfaaa-699c-11e8-a335-c4503d041eaf_story.html

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Anna Salvania

ANNA SALVANIA is a junior from Eagle Mountain, Utah. She is a Middle Eastern Studies/Arabic major and a Global Women’s Studies minor. She helps manage the sexual assault outreach services at the Center for Women and Children in Crisis and is currently serving as the BYU Women’s Studies Honor Society president. She’s a fan of feminist theology, planning protests, Diet Coke, discussing the 2020 election, and Bollywood. Her special talent is sidetracking every conversation into a political one and her pet peeves include willful ignorance and racism. She intends to pursue a career in international human rights law, specializing in women’s issues and the refugee crisis.

Anna Salvania

ANNA SALVANIA is a junior from Eagle Mountain, Utah. She is a Middle Eastern Studies/Arabic major and a Global Women’s Studies minor. She helps manage the sexual assault outreach services at the Center for Women and Children in Crisis and is currently serving as the BYU Women’s Studies Honor Society president. She’s a fan of feminist theology, planning protests, Diet Coke, discussing the 2020 election, and Bollywood. Her special talent is sidetracking every conversation into a political one and her pet peeves include willful ignorance and racism. She intends to pursue a career in international human rights law, specializing in women’s issues and the refugee crisis.

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