War, Occupation and Mental Health

A personal view published in radical mental health magazine Asylum, Summer 2024.

War, occupation and mental health

Ongoing violent conflict around the world brings into focus the mental health impacts of war and denial of rights.

Perhaps it is stating the obvious to begin by asserting that living under occupation or military assault has a negative impact on mental health.

Morocco has been occupying most of the Western Sahara against the wishes of its people for fifty years. Anti-occupation campaigners such as Aminatou Haidar have been attacked, assaulted and imprisoned, in an effort to intimidate them.

Refugees from West Papua have been found to be experiencing mental health problems caused by actions of Indonesian occupation forces.

A report from the Lebanese American University in 2022 detailed the mental health struggles of members of Uyghur diaspora communities. Many have fled persecution, including torture, and are anxious about the ongoing repression of their families, friends and relatives back in China.

As Ukrainians will testify, war creates mental distress but makes support services harder to access.

In February, The Lancet published an article, ‘Addressing the mental health crisis among children in Gaza’, which reported that, “Constant bombardment and displacement and the loss of family members are predisposing many children to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other adverse mental health conditions. In fact, a 2020 study showed that 53·5% of Gazan children had PTSD even before this [most recent stage of the] conflict.”

The population of Gaza is traumatised by Israel’s brutal military assault, the tens of thousands of deaths, being driven out of their homes, facing famine and destitution. The surviving Israeli hostages are also traumatised, as are their families and friends, those whose loved ones were killed on 7 October, and wider Israeli society.

The Lancet article argues that the psychological distress suffered by Palestinians, “can increase children and young people’s susceptibility to radicalisation, as extremist groups often exploit feelings of hopelessness.”

A statement by UK-based mental health campaign CHARM points out that, “The mental traumas inflicted on the entire Palestinian population as a result of these actions will impact not just the current generation, but generations to come.”

For some, the trauma of living through military occupation and bombardment can produce a desire for revenge and support for action to destroy the other side, even if that means killing innocent civilians in a collective punishment for the crimes of their rulers. Several studies have shown that thoughts of revenge are higher in people who have experienced trauma, with those thoughts more intense the more extreme the trauma.

Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab national identities are both shaped by experiences of oppression. Both have experienced gross historical injustices. Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, are currently experiencing brutal oppression, and in Israel’s refusal to allow a Palestinian state, an ongoing gross injustice.

In November 2023, Robert Rosenthal wrote on his website, The Progressive Jew, about what he termed “Israel’s Huge Mental Health Experiment in Gaza”. He argues that long years of military action and material deprivation have created trauma among Palestinians, and that this contributes to the ongoing conflict.

He points out that Gazans who were children during Israel’s bombing campaign in 2014 experienced psychological trauma, with the UN estimating three years later that more than three thousand Gazan children needed psychosocial support. But he also stresses that it was a very small percentage of these hundreds of thousands of children who became the adults who brutally attacked Israeli civilians on 7 October last year, in what Rosenthal calls “immoral … atrocities”, “gruesome attacks”.

It is important to recognise the impact of violence and deprivation on mental health, and the contribution of this to ongoing violence. But it is not a justification for ongoing violence, from either side. Rosenthal explicitly argues against the idea that “trauma victims who commit atrocities ought to get a pass”.

The flipside of this argument is the assertion that those who have survived appalling acts of oppression ought to know better than to commit them against others. With Israel very much the more powerful side in the current conflict, this argument tends to be deployed in the form that victims of the Holocaust should not be violently oppressing others. This seems to apply an additional moral burden that is not necessarily applied to others, imposing higher moral standards on survivors of violent oppression. Daniel Randall argues persuasively in an article on JewThink that, “we inhibit the struggle to win … equality if we promote the idea that the Holocaust should have served as a moral instruction to Jews.”

Arguing that a people’s experience of horrific oppression is either an excuse for brutally mistreating others, or an extra reason not to that does not apply to others, are both, in my view, mistaken and unhelpful.

The point of examining the cycle of trauma and violence is to make some contribution to understanding it, with the aim of ending it. As Jewish-Palestinian Israeli group Standing Together argues, the choice is between reaching a peaceful settlement and perpetual war.

The escalation of violence in Israel-Palestine has been distressing for many people around the world, perhaps especially those who feel a connection with the region. It has also been accompanied by a rise in attacks on Muslims and Jews (and those perceived to be Muslims or Jews) by those who would, wrongly, hold all Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli regime and all Muslims responsible for the actions of Hamas.

Tell Mama, which monitors hate crime against Muslims in Britain, reported that anti-Muslim attacks increased fourfold in the four months after 7 October. Its director told the BBC, “Individuals walking down the streets are being targeted, harassed, households have been doodled with graffiti calling people ‘killers’, ‘terrorists’, ‘Hamas sympathisers’. Anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia is gendered – it’s misogyny as well as the visibility of that woman being either of an Asian background or wearing visible Muslim attires.”

The Community Security Trust, which describes its purpose as protecting British Jews, logged 2,093 antisemitic incidents in the UK between 7 October and 13 December 2023, more than six times the number in the corresponding period the previous year. In one incident, a group of young Jewish adults were attacked in London’s Leicester Square by a group of more than fifteen men who had overheard them speaking Hebrew. One of the victims reported that the assailants had chanted ‘Free Palestine,’ and ‘f— Jews’.

Holding Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli regime, or Muslims responsible for the actions of Hamas, is a form of collective punishment, especially when expressed in abuse and attack, causing physical and mental harm.

Nearly two hundred years ago, military theorist Karl von Clausewitz wrote that war is the continuation of politics by other means. So, to end war and consequently reduce mental distress, we need to find political solutions to conflict. 

Radical mental health magazine Asylum

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