Gaza’s On-going Mental Health Crisis

by Paul Parker

Mental illness is not “just in your head,” but is caused by multiple factors including physical health, family dynamics, spiritual dissonance, environmental toxins, financial limits, social pressures, and political upheavals.

Palestinian Muslims and Christians living in Gaza have all these stressors: Israel’s invasions and bombing campaigns in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014; daily fear of another bombing; Israel’s 360 degree military blockade; Palestine’s divided government; poverty and unemployment at abnormally high rates—both over 50%; little to no economic development; unpotable water; electricity less than twelve hours per day; without power, untreated sewage flows into the sea; 80% of the beaches polluted endangering coastal fishing; hospitals understaffed and without sufficient medicine or essential equipment; regular fly-overs by Israeli drones and fighter jets; and every week Israeli soldiers shooting nonviolent protestors in Gaza’s Great March of Return.

Unsurprisingly, the Norwegian Refugee Council reports that over two-thirds of Gaza’s school children suffer from psychosocial distress and that more than half have no hope for a different future. Save the Children reports that “children and families in Gaza live in a near-constant state of distress with little hope for an end to their ordeal.” The main sources of distress for adults and children alike are “the constant threat of war and death” and powerlessness to change almost every aspect of their lives.

In response to this crisis, Al Najd [“the assistance”] Development Forum (NDF) has begun to provide mental healthcare to hundreds and potentially tens of thousands in Gaza through cutting edge technology and professional therapists. NDF, established in 2007 and a partner with MCC Palestine since 2008, is a community-based organization located in Gaza City that is guided by an elected board of women, men, students, lawyers, nurses, and other professions.

Najd Forum concludes the first phase of the project "towards healthy families"
Those presiding over the graduation of the first group of therapists to be trained for NDF and MCC’s “Healthy Families” program are (left to right): Rifqa Younes Hamalawy, NDF’s Director; Khalid Elmassri, NDF volunteer, translator and mobile phone app developer; Paul Parker, Peace Program co-Coordinator for MCC Palestine; Khalid Abu Sharekh, NDF’s General Director; Mohammed Abu Yousef, Professor of Psychology and trainer for “Healthy Families” therapists. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

“For Healthy Families” is NDF’s new program that adapts cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to a smart phone app which was conceived and developed specifically for the project by NDF volunteer, Khalid Elmassri. Internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) has been used in Europe and North America for over twenty years, but smart phone apps for ICBT are new and incredibly promising.

ICBT sessions mirror in-person sessions with the addition of email, texting, and reading material delivered over the internet. By putting all this into a phone app, NDF will be able to reach families and individuals who do not have computers but have phones—and they can receive therapy in the privacy of their own personal spaces.

At the first graduation ceremony for specially trained clinicians, the General Director of NDF, Khalid Abu Sharekh, said that “the MCC funded project will contribute significantly” to mental health in Gaza.  This “innovative treatment approach” will focus on persons affected by debilitating anxiety, tension, “on-going trauma and post-traumatic stress.” Professor Mohammed Abu Yousef, Islamic University-Gaza, trained the participating therapists and added, “Treatment will be provided through a mobile [phone] application by which citizens will be able to communicate with psychologists quickly, confidentially, and at very low cost.”

The first graduation class of train therapists for NDF and MCC’s “Healthy Families” program. September 17, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

In Gaza, mental health disorders are legion: aggression, depression, suicide, addiction, lethargy, delusions, anxiety disorders, domestic violence, sleeplessness, inability to concentrate, and on and on and on. Even so, the Palestinians of Gaza live positive and productive lives because, as Rifqa Younes Hamalawy says, the “NDF and MCC’s partnership gives hope to the hopeless without which no one can live. We live with hope for a new day.”

To learn more about MCC’s work in Palestine and Israel and to find out how you can get involved, visit our website here.

Paul Parker is Peace Program Coordinator for MCC in Palestine and Israel

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