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Americans with loved ones in Israel and Gaza feel the mental effects of the war

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The images that came out of Israel on October 7 were brutal and graphic, and the images coming out of Gaza for months now are constant, also brutal and horrific. All this violence is being shared on social media, and as KQED's Lesley McClurg reports, that's affecting the mental health of Americans with loved ones in Gaza and in Israel. A warning - this story contains descriptions of violence.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Some of the footage Shoshana Howard (ph) saw on social media months ago still haunts her. A video appears to show a Hamas fighter pulling an Israeli hostage from the trunk of a jeep. CNN aired a clip of the video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Her face is bleeding, and her wrists appear to be cable-tied behind her back.

MCCLURG: It looks like blood is seeping through the back of the woman's sweatpants.

SHOSHANA HOWARD: And that broke me - and then seeing friends calling it liberation.

MCCLURG: Howard, who is Jewish, couldn't believe people she knew were writing comments online that, to her, felt inhumane and anti-Jewish.

HOWARD: That's when I started to have night terrors, and I was ending my days going into my closet and just would cry.

MCCLURG: She couldn't stop thinking about her cousins living in Israel. As the days passed, it became harder to focus on her life and work in Oakland.

HOWARD: Like, I just was so fragile.

MCCLURG: And then recently, she felt shamed by a friend who told her her grief doesn't matter when so many Palestinians are suffering.

HOWARD: The experience that's happened is just a very deep isolation.

MCCLURG: It's a sentiment Carly Coons has heard a lot lately. She's a licensed social worker for the Blue Dove Foundation, a nonprofit supporting mental health in the Jewish community.

CARLY COONS: Not only is there this war in Israel and Gaza, but there's also this huge increase in antisemitism, in discrimination across the board, and that is also a particularly isolating experience.

MCCLURG: Coons recommends her clients take regular breaks from social media.

COONS: Boundaries are what allow us to re-regulate our nervous system, to take care of ourselves, to make sure we're meeting our basic needs like sleeping, eating, connecting with our loved ones.

MCCLURG: She recommends that people who usually read the news in the morning wait until after breakfast so their bodies are nourished. And she tells clients to set the phone down if it gets too dark, though some people, like Palestinian American Dana Elborno, say they just can't unplug.

DANA ELBORNO: We really don't want to think about anything else. It's too close to us.

MCCLURG: Elborno lives in Chicago, but she has lots of family in Gaza.

ELBORNO: It's impossible for them to hide the desperation and sickness in their voices.

MCCLURG: In the beginning of the war, she worried about her family. But now, months later...

ELBORNO: I can't even tell you. The reality has far exceeded my wildest nightmares.

MCCLURG: Aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws all have been displaced from their homes.

ELBORNO: The hunger, the cold, everyone has nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. The water is all polluted.

MCCLURG: She says keeping in touch can be spotty because blackouts are common in Gaza. The first time phone services went down and Elborno didn't hear from her family, she says she fainted.

ELBORNO: I had, like, a very visceral response, body-shaking sobs. Like, what is about to happen? Like, what are we about to lose?

MCCLURG: Initially, she was riddled with anxiety. Fast forward to today, and Elborno is struggling to find any sense of meaning. The only thing that helps is writing letters to policymakers advocating for a cease-fire. She can't imagine doing anything fun, and that makes sense to psychotherapist Sara Ghalaini.

SARA GHALAINI: What's happening is not normal. What's happening is awful, and it's happening to a lot of people, whether you're there or not.

MCCLURG: She's based in Berkeley, and she works with the Arab community, including Palestinians. She's urging her clients to stay connected to others.

GHALAINI: When you find your community, you can find a collective healing for the collective grief that everyone is moving through.

MCCLURG: This can be through a school group, neighborhood committee, walking club.

GHALAINI: We're seeing people who are coming together to, like, embroider together, do tatreez, which is, like, a Palestinian traditional sewing group, and they're all just sitting around, like, sewing together.

MCCLURG: The goal is not to take away the pain.

GHALAINI: Or heal this really quickly.

MCCLURG: It's simply to be with the pain and give yourself grace while grieving.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg. 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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