Behind the Headlines; Mental Heath Services Set Up to Prevent Suicide Among Olim

Suicide, murder, prostitution, petty crime and hunger — they are problems Natan Sharansky’s Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum does not like to talk about.

But experts say these problems have all afflicted the emigre community here and are bound to worsen unless conditions improve for the thousands of newcomers streaming into the country each week.

“Unless adequate measures are taken to provide uprooted Soviet families with appropriate psychological tools to function normally under severe conditions of financial stress, temporary housing and professional unemployment, the pressures of social disintegration will deepen,” said Dr. Ya’acov Shultz, a consulting psychiatrist to the Zionist Forum.

“Suicide is seized on as a simple personal answer to seemingly intractable problems,” explained Shultz, who made aliyah from Minsk 20 years ago.

According to Israel’s Health Ministry, there were 31 attempted suicides by Soviet olim in 1990, the first complete year of massive immigration, and eight of those cases ended in death.

While 11 percent of all suicide attempts by Jews in Israel were made by Soviet olim, Soviet Jews accounted for 26 percent of all Jewish suicide attempts that ended in death.

But the situation is even worse in the Ethiopian immigrant community, where suicide is said to be five times the Israeli national average.

Among the factors cited by Jewish Agency counselors and corroborated by at least one psychiatric study of hospitalized Ethiopians, are a compendium of family traumas, acute cultural dislocation, unemployment and overcrowded, temporary living conditions.

‘A POPULATION IN DISTRESS’

Jewish Agency officials are now hopeful that by March, bureaucratic entanglements will be resolved so that the 9,000 Ethiopian olim still living in hotels and absorption centers around the country can be transferred to mobile home sites, where families can function more normally.

Months before the mass influx of Soviet olim, Shultz urged the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum to prepare psychiatric counseling services to help olim cope with inevitable “cultural decompensation,” especially among olim above the age of 45.

“The current Soviet aliyah wave is a population in distress,” explained Shultz. “Thousands of olim are coming to Israel because they have nowhere else to go.”

To help them adjust, Shultz proposed the establishment of mental health centers.

Last August, with the assistance of $150,000 in seed money contributed by the Legacy Foundation of the New York UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, the Zionist Forum initiated a pilot group therapy project for 130 Soviet olim in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Therapy consists of three, five-hour meetings each week, led by trained psychologists, during which olim are asked to verbalize their fears and anxieties about Israel and Israelis.

The therapist’s task is to present Israeli perspectives and to mediate between exaggerated Soviet expectations and deep-set misconceptions.

Group participation is intended to demonstrate that individual problems are shared and, through group discussions, Soviet olim are taught self-help in searching for practical ways of coping with their personal situations.

Wary at first, Soviet olim have responded well to this program, said Shultz, who is project coordinator. Individual therapy has recently been introduced for some 140 people.

‘WE ARE WITH YOU’ HOTLINE

Meanwhile, negotiations will be initiated with the Health Ministry to persuade hospitals, medical funds and municipal social services to train and employ some of the 9,000 Soviet doctors who have immigrated since late 1989 to administer psychological and psychiatric treatment to Soviet olim.

Given the success of group therapy, parent-child counseling groups are currently being organized to assist youngsters and their families cope with social adjustment to Israeli schools, said Yona Frankel, the Zionist Forum’s coordinator of olim support services.

A telephone hotline, called “We Are With You,” has also been operating since early 1990 through the Jerusalem municipality’s volunteer organizations department, to strengthen the morale of anonymous callers.

In addition, 300 families and dozens of individuals have benefited from 12 weekly group counseling sessions offered by the department’s Crisis Intervention Center, according to Batia Vashik, the service’s director.

Some 50 Soviet olim from different professional backgrounds have completed three-month retraining courses and are employed as backup counselors leading group discussions to strengthen olim self-esteem, deal with depression and guide role simulations designed to assist job-seekers with employment problems.

Assistance to Ethiopian olim often takes a different form.

“The sediments of physical hardship and psychological stress experienced in Ethiopia have produced medical ailments and psychosomatic disorders, requiring a combination of traditional healing practices and formal clinical and psychiatric methods,” said Ora Donio, director of Jewish Agency counseling for Ethiopian olim.

VIDEOTAPES FOR ETHIOPIANS

Because many Ethiopian olim are illiterate, even in their native Amharic, systematic information is transmitted in an outreach program led by Israeli social workers twinned with veteran Ethiopian translators.

Olim are taught verbally and in simulated situations about Israeli daily life, and health, hygiene and birth control practices. Veteran Ethiopians, capable of mediating between Israeli and traditional Ethiopian mind-sets, are also being trained as absorption counselors.

In response to the rising suicides and homicides, a crisis situation center is being established, staffed by trained veteran Ethiopians. Prepared videotape films presenting Ethiopian families in everyday family and social conflict will be screened to small olim groups, followed by discussions guided by ethnic Ethiopian counselors.

“Their purpose will be to explain to them, that in the absence of traditional authority figures, Ethiopians can legitimately turn for help to appropriate Israeli psychologists, psychiatrists and welfare counselors,” said Jewish Agency consultant Ya’acov Elias, a veteran Ethiopian oleh.

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