Ensuring care for both body and mind — the whole individual — for all individuals

There is an ongoing mental health crisis happening in Israel right now. The war, which recently passed its seven-month mark, has taken a toll on nearly every Israeli citizen. According to a survey conducted by Maccabi Healthcare Services, 1 in 4 Israelis — and 45% of evacuees — report needing professional mental health support. While 70% of evacuees who have requested such help are currently being treated, 22% reported feeling they need assistance but haven’t applied to receive it. 

It is no secret that an already strained mental health care system is unable to meet the demand, but the crisis is increasingly acute for one of the country’s most vulnerable populations: adults and children with disabilities. 

Approximately 20% of the Israeli population — more than 1.5 million people — have a disability. Even before the current conflict, mental health support for this population was sorely lacking. While efforts have been underway since the start of the war to increase access to mental health services, those efforts have been geared primarily toward the general population, not those with disabilities. 

As CEO of Beit Issie Shapiro, an organization that has been pioneering cutting-edge services for people with disabilities for over four decades, I’ve witnessed firsthand the sizable gap in adequate mental health care for this population. Since Oct. 7, the urgent need to evolve how we approach emotional and psychological support for those with cognitive, developmental and physical challenges has only been magnified.

Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S. and Israel and Mental Health Awareness Week in the U.K. provide the perfect opportunity to give this need the attention it deserves. 

Adults and children with disabilities are at an increased risk for mental health issues. Post traumatic stress disorder is one example: For some individuals, their disability is a result of injury, which comes with trauma; and others have genetic conditions or special needs from birth but have experienced physical and emotional trauma. Individuals with autism face up to a 70% likelihood of having at least one mental health condition and often have a dual diagnosis (such as autism and PTSD).

At Beit Issie Shapiro, our expertise comes from running a specialized mental health clinic on our campus for over 20 years. As a result, we understand the emotional needs of people with disabilities, such as unique differences in emotional development, and the most effective methodologies for addressing those needs. 

The lack of mental health services for those with physical and cognitive disabilities is a national problem that has always existed, both in Israel and around the world. But the past seven months have produced such a spike in citizens and soldiers with injuries resulting in some form of disability that the existing issue has gained increased awareness and attention here. 

The problem is multidimensional. In Israel, the mental health sector of the healthcare system lacks the knowledge, trained professionals and capacity to treat this sector of the population. Those with disabilities are neither encouraged nor educated to advocate for their mental health care; and caregivers and the cadre of skilled therapists in the country are not incentivized in any way to overcome the challenges of working with patients with disabilities. 

In the long shadow of Oct. 7 and the ongoing war, Beit Issie Shapiro is stepping up to tackle the tsunami of mental health issues by expanding services and developing research and professional training in this area. We have welcomed hundreds of evacuees from Israel’s northern and southern communities to our campus, providing essential services for evacuee children with disabilities; and we have expanded our services to help Israelis with and without disabilities throughout the country, providing much-needed treatments (including multisensory, emotional, sports and hydro therapies) free of charge.

Building from this experience, we are developing a training program for mental health professionals to work with people with disabilities at a new National Center for People with Disabilities in Raanana. We envision offering accredited training for clinicians to specialize in mental health services for adults and children with disabilities; a specialized residency to give hands-on practical experience while learning; a public awareness campaign to advocate for the needs of specialized and available mental health services across the greater medical establishment; researching and creating adapted models of emotional therapy, and more. 

We’re working to fundamentally transform how mental health education equips practitioners to embrace the full spectrum of human diversity, and we are actively seeking philanthropic partners to help us tackle these painful and critical gaps in Israeli society.

When we create space for the needs of every community, we shed light on solutions that benefit countless others. Such an inclusive vision can perhaps help Israel emerge from this mental health crisis by reaffirming our commitment to mental health services for all. 

Ahmir Lerner is the executive director of Beit Issie Shapiro.