During these challenging times, scaling up mental health support in Israel is vital

Sahar, an Israeli non-profit organization, has been dedicated to providing first aid mental health support to individuals in need for more than 20 years, harnessing the power of compassionate volunteers and mental health professionals to create a robust support network. 

In the wake of the brutal Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the country has been thrust into unimaginable turmoil. The entire nation is grappling with the trauma and its psychological impact. With Sahar’s services more essential than ever before, the organization is one of many in the mental health arena in Israel that have had to expand operations, train new volunteers and embrace technological advancements to fulfill its mission of saving lives and making a difference.

The organization’s team is built upon a foundation of nonprofessional volunteers who undergo specialized training, as well as mental health professionals who supervise the first responders. This collaborative approach ensures that those seeking help receive professional, empathetic and informed guidance. Sahar supports those experiencing emotional distress and suicidal thoughts through a range of text-based online services, including an anonymous chat feature on its website, a WhatsApp hotline, support forums and email. While Sahar offers support to the entire Israeli population, 75% of “callers” are under the age of 30 and some have been as young as 10 years old. 

Additionally, Sahar’s pioneering “outreach patrol” actively scours the web searching for messages of distress and intervening to prevent crisis escalation and potential suicide. By collaborating with law enforcement and emergency agencies, Sahar’s outreach patrol has been able to make a tangible impact in saving lives. 

The hotlines operated by Sahar have experienced an overwhelming surge in activity since Oct. 7, with a staggering 300% increase in demand. People across the nation are seeking solace, support and guidance as they navigate acute stress and anxiety. Sahar has been at the forefront, responding with compassion and dedication to assist everyone in need during these difficult days. Due to the increase in demand, Sahar tripled its operating hours from 8 to 24 hours per day, trained 150 new volunteers in an accelerated program and adjusted our protocols to a “war mode.” 

While Sahar has been able to increase its capacity and address the immediate needs of those affected by the attack, the full impact of the trauma is expected to manifest in the coming months and years. Mental health professionals forecast that tens to hundreds of thousands of people may experience signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of such a devastating event. As the names, faces, and stories of the victims become more personal, the need for mental health support will likely continue to grow.

With foresight and determination, Sahar is actively preparing to address the future challenges posed by the anticipated rise in individuals experiencing PTSD and other mental health issues. The organization recognizes the importance of expanding its support system and equipping its volunteers with the necessary knowledge and skills to provide effective assistance. Sahar is recruiting and training both professional and non-professional volunteers to ensure a comprehensive support network capable of meeting the increasing demand. By strengthening its managerial manpower and embracing advanced technological improvements, such as data analysis and AI algorithms, Sahar aims to enhance its services and accommodate the growing number of individuals in need.

Sahar remains committed to its mission of saving lives and making a difference, recognizing that the impact of the recent trauma will extend beyond the immediate aftermath. By proactively preparing for the long-term effects, Sahar and organizations like it can continue providing vital mental health support to those affected, offering hope, healing and solace during these challenging times.

Dr. Amir Blumenfeld, chairman of Sahar, is a pediatric surgeon specializing in trauma care. He is the former chief of trauma at the IDF Medical Corps Headquarters and consultant to the Ministry of Health on mass casualties events (MCEs).