On Politics and PTSD

What is the connection between three heartbreaking statistics from the end of the year? The first, as many are familiar, is the significant rise in anti-Jewish attacks in the United States and around the world.  The second, as reported recently, is Israel’s 10% rise in fatal motor vehicle crashes (including both the number of crashes, and the total fatalities). The third, according to the Israeli Center Bureau of Statistics, is that up to 15,000 Israeli women were victims of a severe sexual offense in the past year.

The physical toll of these events is catastrophic. In addition to the tragic and inestimable loss of a life cut short, there are now hundreds or thousands of families mourning their loss or learning to live with their own or loved ones’ physical injuries or disabilities. However, as we are all too aware, there also exists a profound psychological and emotional toll in the aftermath of these experiences, which can include severe grief, depression, substance abuse, relationship strain, and post-traumatic stress, among other challenges to mental health.

As someone who has been involved in the research and treatment of PTSD and related challenges for years, I believe strongly in the importance of mental health support for victims and their families. For some people, receiving appropriate psychiatric and psychological treatment can be vital to regaining a sense of stability in their lives following a traumatic event. Nevertheless, what the data and years of experience demonstrate is that to reduce the societal (and sometimes individual) burden of post-traumatic stress, medication or psychotherapy is not the most effective or efficient approach.

Just as physical therapists are not the right address to reduce the societal physical toll, psychotherapists are not the ones who should be tasked with reducing the societal mental health burden. As with most other domains of life, the advantages of preventing a problem before it emerges far outweigh the disadvantages. In many ways, it is governmental or communal systems—and often a combination of the two—that provide the foundation for preventing these types of incidents and fostering actual and perceived safety; when functioning as they should be, they are in the position to effect change in the most effective and cost-efficient ways possible.

Although each challenge requires its own prevention strategies, the roles of community and government entities can be similar in each.  On a communal level, these strategies may include, among other things, identifying and mobilizing existing resources, providing education to community members, creating social norms and pressures to encourage prosocial behavior, and lobbying government for additional resources.  For its part, governments, both local and federal, should be collaborating with experts and community leaders to assess the areas of greatest need; developing laws that provide increased protection or encourage change in antisocial behavior; and working with communities to understand where resources are best allocated to achieve greater safety.

As a mental health advocate, the political realities in Israel and the USA have been maddening.  With Israel’s inability to form a lasting government, and America’s seemingly endless political campaign seasons, barring an exceptional event, the front-page stories in both Israeli and American major news outlets are about political jockeying at the upper echelons of government. While it is true that there is reason not to be optimistic even when governments operate at their normal levels, the current stalemate makes progress nearly impossible. Very little attention is given to the important work that is going on already at the communal level, or how the various personalities in government plan to address these needs in the communities. With political dysfunction ruling the day, there is little opportunity for public hearings or deliberate consideration of effective strategies.  Perhaps this sentiment is best made by Raheli Tevet-Wiesel, the director general of Israel’s National Road Safety Authority, as quoted in the article linked to above:

“Significantly reducing road accidents in Israel necessitates devoting resources and cooperation between all government offices and bodies involved directly and indirectly. We cannot create real change without the allocation of resources correlating to the number of those killed every year,” she said.  She also called for all drivers to behave more responsibly on the roads, saying “the human factor is a deciding factor in this war.”

This sentiment could just as easily apply to combating anti-Jewish attacks or sexual offenses.  At least one of the connections between the statistics mentioned above is that a functioning political system and government matters.  Legislative improvements, public education campaigns, and increased funding can all be important tools in preventing a wide range of potentially traumatic events—but these tools are not employed effectively when government is in disarray.  As we enter the new year, let us continue to support the victims and their families in whatever ways we are able, as well as do what is within our power individually to prevent these types of events.  And let us also continue to press our community leaders and government representatives to act in the interest of the community members and citizens, and do what they can to reduce or eliminate these tragic and preventable outcomes.

About the Author
Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh, and a rabbi who writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha.
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