"The psychologists helped them realize that their emotions were a normal reaction to the situation. What was abnormal was the situation itself."
By Claudia Blume
When Srijeeta Verma of Toronto signed up for a nine-month assignment as project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s mental health project in Hebron and East Jerusalem last year, she knew she would be working in a chronic conflict situation. But she did not expect to be managing an emergency a few months after she arrived.
When three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in Hebron in June 2014, it sparked a major security crisis in the region, much of it centered on the area where MSF’s teams had been conducting mental-health outreach activities for the local population. With tensions raised as a result of the abductions, Verma and her colleagues began sending out mobile teams to provide psychological support to Hebron residents, many of whom were experiencing extreme anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosomatic problems as a result of the ongoing unrest.
'What was abnormal was the situation itself'
“Our teams provided psychological fist aid – they gave the affected persons various techniques that helped them deal with what they had been through and what might be coming their way,” Verma says while recalling the challenges of working during that period, which took place one year ago this month. “The psychologists helped them realize that their emotions were a normal reaction to the situation. What was abnormal was the situation itself.” The mobile teams of psychologists, psychosocial workers and team doctor worked tirelessly, and within one month they managed to conduct 1,146 consultations.
MSF has been providing psychological support in Hebron since 2001, helping local residents who are impacted by the stress of daily life in a conflict-affected region. Around 40 percent of beneficiaries of the project are children.
“I was particularly impacted by a little boy of about six, who came to a session and was very aggressive, beating up toy soldiers and drawing very dark pictures of watchtowers and people covered in blood,” recalls Verma. “But the psychologist was gradually able to connect with the boy through music.”
Verma says there were a lot of success stories. One male patient told MSF psychologists that he saw no hope for the future. After attending counseling sessions with MSF staff, he decided to go back to school. He is now a social worker, and brought his students to visit the MSF office.
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The lasting impact of psychological stress
For Verma, the experience of working on a mental-health project increased her understanding of the impact that traumatic events can have on those who live through them. While treating physical injuries is an obvious medical priority, it’s important to remember that psychological stress, if left untreated, can scar some people for life.
“That’s something that will always stay with me,” she says. “The often unseen and understated indirect impact, which sometimes goes unattended.”