Tel Aviv trauma expert assists U.S. military
An Israeli professor studying the long-term effects of war on the soldiers who fight is now sharing her knowledge with United States counterparts in an attempt to provide better therapy for American servicemen and women returning home from the battlefields of Iraq.
During the last 20 years, Tel Aviv University professor Zahava Solomon has conducted research into the psychological consequences of war and terror. She recently returned from a conference in Florida — the second annual National Symposium on Combat Stress Injuries: Addressing the Challenges, Explaining the Solutions and Managing the Injuries — where she spoke about managing stress while still in combat.
“It’s important to understand the long-term consequences of war and to minimize [them],” Solomon said.
While people tend to perceive war as only taking place on the battlefield, according to Solomon, a professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology and Social Work and the Head of the Adler Research Center for Child Welfare and Protection, for many the effects linger long after the battle is over.
“The war does not end for a considerable portion of these individuals, and relatively high rates of combatants continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). They continue to experience the war in nightmares and flashbacks. We pretty much liken it to cancer of the soul,” she said.
Solomon’s research has revolutionized the way Israeli soldiers are treated in battle, suggesting that the best way to combat stress is to give immediate treatment while soldiers are still on the front lines.
“Our 20-year follow-up study has actually documented that if this very simple treatment is applied on time, then the consequences are very favorable and this relatively simple treatment can actually save years of agony and pain,” said Solomon. “The first study was published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1986, and it’s follow-up in 2005. It’s the only documented empirical study that has supported the doctrine that has been used by the American, British and all western armies.”
Solomon, who has published five books on psychic trauma-related issues, more than 200 articles and more than 50 book chapters, has received numerous international awards for her work in the field of PTSD and has been one of the few researchers worldwide to carry out long-term studies on the effects of combat on solders. She began her career as head of the research branch of the mental health corps of the Israel Defense Forces medical school, conducting her first studies of PTSD on soldiers during the first Lebanon War in 1982.
“Nobody anywhere has data sets where they follow individuals for 20 years, from the battlefields onwards,” she said. If we get enough funding, we will be able to do this for many years to come.”
Solomon’s research has focused on three different population groups: soldiers, Holocaust survivors, and former prisoners of war. The lessons Israel’s ‘natural laboratory’ provides offers valuable material for researchers, helping them discover new solutions to help treat those who suffer from PTSD and a range of other psychological illnesses.
According to Solomon, it’s easier to conduct studies on soldiers in Israel than in the United States, due to the concentrated population, smaller size, and a more global acceptance of soldiers. But despite a more welcoming environment in Israel, it has not always been easy for Solomon to get the soldiers to cooperate.
“When we started, it wasn’t much of an honor to be a traumatized soldier. Many of our initial interviewees were reluctant to participate,” she explains. “Despite the availability of benefits for soldiers, many of them went out of their way not to ask for help. In macho cultures, seeking help is seen as failure. Obviously, over time there’s been a major change in culture and the way Israeli society views these things. As a result, people go on interviews, reveal their stories and ask for compensation and help right away. Even more so, we’ve seen parents whose children had a psychotic breakthrough and now they want their children to be recognized. It’s a complete change of heart.”
Solomon’s U.S. counterparts have been surprised at the respectful way that Israeli society treats its soldiers, even those suffering from the aftereffects of battle or those who fought in unpopular wars, such as the first Lebanese war in the early 1980s, often described as “Israel’s Vietnam.”
Solomon is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts in combat trauma. She’s served as an adviser to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a handbook published by the American Psychiatric Association and used by mental health professionals, which lists different categories of mental disorders.
Her personal background as a second-generation Holocaust survivor led her to this field.
“My mother spent her childhood in Auschwitz,” she said. “The issue of trauma has not just been an academic issue but also a real-life, personal thing,”
She first became involved in studying trauma and war as part of her military service.
“There, I became convinced that these individuals paid a heavy [price] for man’s proclivities to solve conflicts via war and aggression. It became clear that these individuals need to be seen and heard and their suffering has to be documented, and it’s become kind of a life mission.”