Mental Health in Palestine: Collective Trauma and Storytelling Under Occupation
The Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA) published a recent report on the mental health of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. AIDA reported that settler violence and home demolitions greatly affect Palestinian mental health. This report comes a month after far-right Israelis marched on Jerusalem day shouting “death to Arabs” and “may your villages be burned down.” The Jerusalem Post quoted an Israeli as having said in reference to Palestinians: “They are a virus, and they need to be rounded up and put in extermination camps. There’s no way that we’re going to be able to live together. It’s us or them.” Palestinians today fear a second Nakba or catastrophe as they continue to experience displacement and violence under Israeli occupation. Experiencing continuous physical and emotional violence causes a severe mental health crisis among the Palestinian community worldwide.
Palestinians share a collective trauma. Beyond its mere existence, the Israeli occupation commits human rights violations against Palestinians by imprisoning children, killing unarmed civilians and journalists, and restricting the freedom of movement, as well as access to water. Every act of violence that harms an individual impacts the fabric of society. These experiences have caused psychological harm to Palestinians. In fact, Western scholars have often diagnosed Palestinians with PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, in the Palestinian context, no ‘post’ trauma exists. The trauma continues every day. The occupation remains a part of daily reality. Palestinians experience fear, not as a reaction to past trauma, but in response to threats that could happen at any moment. Samah Jabr, a Palestinian psychiatrist, says that the PTSD measure and Western definitions of trauma are entirely inadequate when it comes to diagnosing Palestinians. She writes, “The psychiatric definition of trauma does not accommodate the most commonplace experience for Palestinians: humiliation, objectification, forced helplessness, and daily exposure to toxic stress… Especially lacking is the understanding that the multiple traumas inflicted upon Palestinians due to political violence also represent a collective trauma experienced by society as a whole.”
Furthermore, the manifestations of the effects of the occupation on mental health are not always similar to PTSD symptoms. The AIDA report for instance found that 50% of Palestinians experience headaches and stomach aches, 83% have difficulty concentrating, and 75% continuously feel sad. The report also stated that demolitions and displacement give caregivers and parents a sense of hopelessness when they cannot protect their children which impacts their mental health. Furthermore, while some Palestinians do not display the aforementioned symptoms, the Israeli occupation affects their response to stress. The AIDA report explains that “What is sometimes mistaken for resilience is the necessary adaptation to a stressful environment, in which encountering violence is part of the ‘daily routine’ and where acute stress is the norm.” (14).
Despite the crucial need for mental health services in Palestine, the Palestinian health care system has not been able to provide adequate care to Palestinians. What do we do then about mental health in Palestine where millions have been living under occupation for years? While there are mental health facilities in Palestine, addressing the needs of one individual in this situation is not sufficient if the needs of the collective are not met. Palestinians need a way to deal with mental health while keeping hope alive for a just future. This is why, for generations, Palestinians have engaged in storytelling as a form of healing. In this context, storytelling does not mean that Palestinians continuously recount their traumas to the international community. In fact, the AIDA report found that recounting incidents of violence and displacement to NGOs or journalists causes distress to Palestinians, and in such incidents a trained mental health professional should be present (51). Storytelling among Palestinians, however, is when Palestinians pass down memories of Palestine prior to the intifadas, and the Wall, and the displacement of millions, thus keeping the memory alive for generations to come. This form of storytelling can be oral, or can be done in other creative ways such as art, cinema, or novels. In telling their stories, Palestinians reclaim their identity that is being erased. Storytelling becomes a means for hope in a context of despair.