For the last two and a half years, I'm one of the few, if not the only, child psychiatrist operating in refugee camps, shorelines and rescue boats in Greece and the Mediterranean Sea. And I can say, with great confidence, that we are witnessing a mental-health catastrophe that will affect most of us, and it will change our world.
I live in Haifa, but nowadays, I spend most of my time abroad. During my time on the Greek island of Lesbos and on the rescue boats in the Mediterranean, thousands of refugee boats arrived to the shoreline, crowded with more than 1.5 million refugees. One-fourth of them are children, fleeing war and hardship. Each boat carries different sufferings and traumas from Syria, Iraq, Afganistan and different countries in Africa. In the last three years alone, more than 12,000 refugees lost their lives. And hundreds of thousands lost their souls and their mental health due to this cruel and traumatic experience.
I want to tell you about Omar, a five-year-old Syrian refugee boy who arrived to the shore on Lesbos on a crowded rubber boat. Crying, frightened, unable to understand what's happening to him, he was right on the verge of developing a new trauma. I knew right away that this was a golden hour, a short period of time in which I could change his story, I could change the story that he would tell himself for the rest of his life. I could reframe his memories. I quickly held out my hands and said to his shaking mother in Arabic,
"Ateeni elwalad o khudi nafas." "Give me the boy, and take a breath." His mother gave him to me.
Omar looked at me with scared, tearful eyes and said, "Ammo (uncle in Arabic), shu hada?" "What is this?" as he pointed out to the police helicopter hovering above us.
"It's a helicopter! It's here to photograph you with big cameras, because only the great and the powerful heroes, like you, Omar, can cross the sea."
Omar looked at me, stopped crying and asked me, "Ana batal?" "I'm a hero?"
I talked to Omar for 15 minutes. And I gave his parents some guidance to follow. This short psychological intervention decreases the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues in the future, preparing Omar to get an education, join the workforce, raise a family and beyond. How? By stimulating the good memories that will be stored in the amygdala, the emotional storage of the human brain. These memories will fight the traumatic ones, if they are reactivated in the future. To Omar, the smell of the sea will not just remind him of his traumatic journey from Syria. Because to Omar, this story is now a story of bravery.
This is the power of the golden hour, which can reframe the trauma and establish a new narrative. But Omar is only one out of more than 350,000 children without the proper mental health support in this crisis alone. Three hundred and fifty thousand children and me.
We need mental health professionals to join rescue teams during times of active crisis. This is why my wife and I and friends co-founded "Humanity Crew." One of the few aid organizations in the world that specializes in providing psychosocial aid and first-response mental health interventions to refugees and displaced populations. To provide them with a suitable intervention, we create the four-step approach, a psychosocial work plan that follows the refugees on each step of their journey. Starting inside the sea, on the rescue boats, as mental health lifeguards. Later in the camps, hospitals and through our online clinic that breaks down borders and overcomes languages. And ending in the asylum countries, helping them integrate.
Since our first mission in 2015, "Humanity Crew" had 194 delegations of qualified, trained volunteers and therapists. We have provided 26,000 hours of mental health support to over 10,000 refugees. We can all do something to prevent this mental health catastrophe. We need to acknowledge that first aid is not just needed for the body, but it has also to include the mind, the soul. The impact on the soul is hardly visible, but the damage can be there for life.
Let's not forget that what distinguishes us humans from machines is the beautiful and the delicate soul within us. Let's try harder to save more Omars.