When Hamas committed its horrendous massacre1 of approximately 1,200 Israeli civilians and abduction of over 240 men, women and children on Saturday 7 October 2023, the impact on the local Jewish communities in the UK was immediate.
Israel is a tiny country, the size of Wales, and most Jewish people in the UK knew someone who had been brutally murdered, kidnapped, displaced from their home or called up to defend their country in a terrifying war against terror.
The impact of the terrorist atrocities was to send the local Jewish communities into a state of traumatic stress. I am a mental health practitioner based in Manchester where there is the biggest Jewish community outside London, and the shockwaves reverberated throughout the community. As Chair of Jewish Action for Mental Health (JAMH), I was at the forefront of co-ordinating a response to the mass mental health needs that became apparent so suddenly. Learning points have emerged that are worth sharing, should any other community need mass mental health trauma support.
We, in the UK, have had experience of dealing with mass trauma. The Manchester Arena bomb that killed 22 people in 20172 put the entire community of Manchester into mass trauma – its impact was wide-reaching and I was part of an emergency mental health response team. The big difference with what happened on the 7 October 2023 was that only a section of the community was directly impacted. This meant that there were fewer resources at our disposal to cope with the trauma waves reverberating throughout the 20,000 strong community.
There was an outpouring of support from many groups within the community, including my own mental health charity. We put on an immediate Zoom support session and set up a Whatsapp support group within 48 hours of the massacre, and there were other Zoom events – from London, Manchester, US and Israel. There were prayer groups, in person and on Zoom, talks on what to tell our children, sessions on how to cope with the anxiety, and workshops on dealing with trauma. A lesson to take forward might be some attempt at co-ordinating all these efforts to prevent overload – though this is extremely hard to do when dealing with well-meaning input from several countries, time-zones and even languages.
There was a surge in demand for counselling, especially as the massacre occurred during a Jewish festival, when many members of the UK communities were celebrating in Israel. We had to deal with their trauma of experiencing sirens and bomb shelters, as well as frantic attempts to leave the country. Several people reported having to rush to bomb shelters at the airport while trying to leave, as well as at night in their hotels. We also had Holocaust survivors and their descendants retriggered by the pogrom in Israel. We received requests from journalists from outside the community, traumatised by what they had witnessed.
It became apparent that we needed mass trauma protocols to use with large groups, and JAMH arranged training for our 35 qualified and accredited therapists. We now have a mass trauma team on call, not just for the local Jewish community, but for any community (including of course, the Muslim community, many of whom were also traumatised by the distressing deaths of Gazans caught in the crossfire in the war against Hamas) should it be needed.
Mental health professionals quickly became burned out by the demands, not just to provide therapy, but to speak at events, hold Zoom sessions, and even to offer Zoom support to the traumatised in Israel. It was hard for mental health professionals to cope with the devastated people they were encountering who had lost loved ones so brutally, or were terrified about the welfare of those kidnapped by such a brutal terrorist regime. When desperate people look to us to make them better and we can’t take away the pain, that is tough – when this happens at a mass level for so long, it can become unbearable. Thus, looking after the mental health teams also became a priority and another lesson learned from this crisis.
I hope that no community in the UK ever needs to benefit from what we have learnt about mass trauma response – but if they do, we are ready to help.
1 BBC News. Israel-Gaza war. What is Hamas and why is it fighting with Israel in Gaza? [Online.]
www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middleeast-67039975 (accessed 1 December 2023).
2 Manchester Arena Inquiry. Report of the public inquiry into the attack on Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017. Gov.UK; 2021. [Online.] https://tinyurl.com/2uby2c2j (accessed 1 December 2023)