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PTSD hotline responds to attack on Israel

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

My co-host Ari Shapiro spent the past week reporting from Israel. And before he left, he took a look at how people there are mentally coping with everything that has happened over the past two weeks - the brutal initial attack of October 7 and the war that has been escalating ever since.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When one event traumatizes an entire country, how can you measure the impact? One way is to look at phone calls to a mental health hotline since the war in Israel began.

EMI PALMOR: We had 6,000 calls in the first week, which is about 25% of what we get in an entire year.

SHAPIRO: Emi Palmor is the chair of Natal, an Israeli helpline that has existed for more than 25 years to help people experiencing PTSD from terror and war. She's had a long, impressive career in government. She describes herself as very cool-headed, and even she has been fighting a feeling of helplessness over the last two weeks that she's never felt before.

PALMOR: I took down all the shutters. My house in complete dark. I just - I don't want anyone looking into my house. I don't want to see a shadow. I'm afraid of shadows, and I'm functioning like a machine.

SHAPIRO: Since the attacks of October 7, what has changed for Natal, this hotline that has spent more than two decades building this infrastructure?

PALMOR: Yeah, yeah. So when everything started, unfortunately, we had people answering calls from people in their safe rooms nearby Gaza who were calling for help.

SHAPIRO: When you're in a safe room, that is not PTSD. That is, there's a threat outside my door.

PALMOR: Right - because I also ask myself the same question - that people reached out to Natal probably because they have been previously treated by Natal, or a friend of them was treated by Natal. I mean, it's not...

SHAPIRO: These are already traumatized people.

PALMOR: ...Dial 911. It's not like a number that everybody knows by heart. But this...

SHAPIRO: And so what do these therapists do when somebody on the other end of the line says...

PALMOR: It's volunteers, first of all. So first of all...

SHAPIRO: What do these volunteers do, yeah?

PALMOR: ...I want to say the moment the missile attacks start, Natal already changes into its emergency mode, OK? So we're starting to have more people answering the lines because we know that people will call. We are starting to publish. We have, like, strips on TV and trying to raise awareness quickly that we are there and that we can accept calls.

SHAPIRO: If there is such thing as a typical call today...

PALMOR: Yeah. Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Can you describe for me what a person on the other end of that phone is likely to need?

PALMOR: They will say that they can't sleep, that they can't breathe. Physically, they can't breathe. You know, they're suffering. They have obsessive thoughts, you know, that they're being afraid of - just like I told you about myself. You know, I'm afraid of shadows all of a sudden. You know, my very basic sense of security is...

SHAPIRO: Is it strange for you, as a person who oversees this hotline to help people with trauma, to suddenly be experiencing these symptoms yourself, to realize that you could be a client as well as...

PALMOR: Do you ask me if I'm surprised?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

PALMOR: Not only that I'm not surprised. I'm so aware of what Natal is doing. I'm so aware - I've spoken to so many people who got help from Natal, who recovered from Natal, that I'm able to report you what I'm experiencing because I understand that it's not that I can't sleep - not because I had coffee, not because my adrenaline can't go down because I've been so active during the day, but because I understand that I'm afraid to close my eyes.

SHAPIRO: Which, in a way, is - I want to say it's good because it represents the elimination of stigma around this...

PALMOR: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...That you can recognize it, that you can describe it, that you can talk about it wasn't always the case.

PALMOR: Yes. Yes. And actually, I know that we take it for granted already, you know, that everybody talks about the trauma. Everybody says trauma. Everybody knows the therapists are volunteering around the country trying to support whoever they find - and yet to understand what truly PTSD is and that it will need serious treatment in order to enable people to be able to function.

SHAPIRO: Can I ask what might be a complicated question? And this is not a political conversation, nor do I want it to be. Do you ever fear that the country's leaders are making decisions from a place of trauma?

PALMOR: It's not a political question because we can say that about 75 years of politicians in Israel. First of all, yes. Second, yes and yes because you know, probably, that the remembrance of the Holocaust is a very present topic in our leadership's talk, speeches. But first of all, our current leaders, let's say at least some of them are second generation like me, that they were raised by people who came from the Holocaust.

SHAPIRO: Who came from trauma.

PALMOR: Came from a major trauma. I can tell you from my home, which is like a good home, you cannot be tired. You cannot be sick. You cannot be hungry. You cannot complain. You cannot say something is difficult about my life. So I have children. I know what it means to raise children while not giving any legitimacy to something that is hard in your life, even if it's objective, even if it's, you know, proportional to what you're experiencing.

SHAPIRO: You've been very candid about your own experience of fear and panic and pain in the last couple of weeks. If you don't mind my asking, have you ever used Natal's resources yourself?

PALMOR: It's really, really interesting because, first of all, this week, I've been telling my relatives to call Natal. And last night, I was sleepless. And I said to myself, maybe it's about time that I will call the helpline. And I didn't yet. But first of all, I just want to remind you that when I meet - you know, we have meetings in Natal. I'm surrounded by therapists. And we can tell, by the way - one day - I don't want to say who it is, but it was, like, one of the leading professionals in Natal. And I was talking with the CEO afterwards and I said, what's wrong with her? And she said, her son was just enlisted to the reserve, and she's been crying the entire morning. And my son has just come back, and my daughter's boyfriend is in the reserve. And I really don't know how to divide my prayers.

And I think that this is something that I've experienced in a previous war that I went through in Israel, that you always pray. You have to pray not because you're religious. You know, like we say, we pray, you know, for the safe return. And all of a sudden, when it's everyone and when you see that so many people have lost entire families, you ask yourself, at the end of this, am I going to be spared from death in my family? And you say to yourself, statistically, what are the chances? And then you start asking yourself, so who is No. 1?

SHAPIRO: So you haven't called yet, but it might be time.

PALMOR: I think that now that Biden has already done everything he can for my security and my well-being, Natal is the next thing.

SHAPIRO: Emi Palmor, thank you so much for talking with us.

PALMOR: Thank you for being interested in our well-being and supporting our mission.

DETROW: That's my co-host, Ari Shapiro, reporting from Tel Aviv. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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