Simcha Scholar
Simcha Scholar

Following Meron, we are all mental health first responders

In the immediate aftermath of the Meron disaster, significant and well-deserved attention has been focused on the hundreds of first responders who provided critical medical aid to the injured — and were forced to contend with the horrific extent of loss of life. Those heroes worked valiantly to ensure that the injured got the immediate medical care they needed and were evacuated to hospitals quickly and efficiently.

But the reality is that perhaps unlike any tragedy in recent memory, the major crisis will only emerge days, weeks, and months after this event. When the shiva chairs are put away and the media moves on, that is when we will really see the mental health impact that lies in the wake of such a massively traumatic event.

When it comes to something like Meron, none of us are immune.  

While those who were at the site might be the most directly affected and are more likely to face symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that may last for years or even longer, the actual impact of these events has extended far beyond northern Israel. That reality presents a situation where, in essence, many of us – whether we are parents, educators, rabbis, camp counselors, or just people who spend time in the company of others — must all be prepared to act as mental health first responders. We need to be ready to respond to changes in mood, symptoms of fear and anxiety, or even physiological changes that can occur with little warning. These changes will be seen in children and in ourselves and we need to be ready and informed of what to do – and what not to.

The reasons why this particular disaster affects us differently are multifold. But perhaps the main reason is the bitter fact that we can so easily relate to the victims and their families. These were people who went to an event that was meant to bring them a spiritual high and sadly, never returned.  

Most of the victims were younger people, teenagers, or young parents who had their entire lives ahead of them. The Jewish world is always interconnected – but in times of tragedy, those bonds get even tighter. So many of us have some connection to the victims, whether we went to the same school or shul, are the same age or family status, listened to their music, or even just watched the funerals and realized how much we have in common with these families in pain.

Coming amidst a celebration that so many can easily identify with, people look at the events and naturally ask the question, “if it could happen to them, what stops it from happening to us?”

Responding to these challenges requires adapting a mindset whereby we accept the reality that mental health issues are real, they are dangerous AND they are treatable. We can easily recognize that the patient in the wheelchair with the fractured leg and ribs is a victim. With God’s help, he will heal. But the truth is that a young boy or girl living on the other side of the world can also be a victim. In a matter of moments, they were exposed to the fragility of human life and they are legitimately filled with fear and a sense of uncertainty.  

Perhaps the most important aspect of helping someone who is facing these less external injuries is to ensure they understand that any reaction is legitimate and it deserves a response. An individual living in London or Los Angeles, New York or Buenos Aires is no less entitled to be affected by this tragedy than someone living in Jerusalem. The very nature of this tragedy means that no one can stake a claim to being more or less impacted and we have no right to judge a person’s reaction as being inappropriate or exaggerated. 

From experience, we know those impacts can last long beyond the initial event and can change how a child views the world and all too often his or her ability to handle situations in ways they previously took for granted.

Alongside our mourning and activism to ensure similar events never take place again, we need to use this tragedy as a way to recognize the importance of mental health care.  

Our world, and in particular our Jewish world, has been dealt all too many tragedies in recent times. We have faced terror attacks in places like Jersey City, Pittsburgh, Poway, Monsey, France, and of course all across Israel. In all these events the immediate response was worthy of considerable praise. But if we fail to remember that the traumas linger long after the last siren dies away, then we will be forgetting the plight of so many of these victims. 

Responding to that challenge will require us to be aware of the warning signs and be ready to serve as mental health first responders – whenever and wherever the need arises.

Chai Lifeline encourages anyone in need of assistance or guidance to contact its Project Chai crisis intervention department at 855-3-CRISIS or crisis@chailifeline.org.  

About the Author
Rabbi Simcha Scholar is the Chief Executive Officer of Chai Lifeline, a leading international children's health support network.
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