19 October 2023
STARTTS recognises that the current violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories has a long and complex history and that there are a multitude of political and ethical views on the situation. As a member of FASSTT (Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma), STARTTS supports the recovery of all survivors of torture, war, political persecution and organised violence (and their descendants) who have come to NSW from overseas. STARTTS decries the use of any violence that breaches international human rights and humanitarian law. Please note that the contents of this article may distress some readers.
Which students in Australian schools are likely to be affected?
In Australia, students may be directly or indirectly exposed to images, footage and audio of the violence occurring in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, leading to vicarious trauma symptoms including intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbances.
Students are likely witnessing their parents/carers in a state of distress and grief about the violence in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories. The upsetting circumstances in many families may also lead to tension and conflict within the home, which adversely impacts on children.
Students with Palestinian heritage
Students and their families with links to the Occupied Palestinian Territories are likely experiencing extreme distress due to the deteriorating situation for Palestinians in the West Bank and the catastrophic situation in the Gaza Strip. Currently, very few people in the Gaza Strip have internet access and it is therefore near impossible for family members in Australia to get information about the welfare of their loved ones. Families in Australia are experiencing extreme grief, horror and anxiety as they learn about loved ones who have been killed, injured or displaced by the intense bombing and impending ground assault of the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians around the world are also horrified by brutality of the Hamas attack on Israelis and do not support their violence.
It is important to note that the current situation is compounding intergenerational trauma for students and their families who have been impacted by ongoing violence, dispossession, occupation and human rights violations since Israel declared its independence in 1948. Organisations such as the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented some recent examples of the oppression of the Palestinian People.
Students with Jewish heritage
Jewish students and their families, in particular those with family-members in Israel are likely to be in a state of shock and grief as they mourn the victims of Hamas’ October 7 attack and fear for the safety of the hostages Hamas have taken into the Gaza Strip. Many Jewish people, including Israelis are also horrified about what is being unleashed on Palestinian people of Gaza and are deeply affected by their suffering. In addition, people of Jewish faith have experienced multiple waves of persecution over millennia, and many are impacted by the collective intergenerational trauma of the WW2 Jewish holocaust. Students with relatives in Israel may also be vicariously traumatised by the insecurity in Israel due to rocket attacks from Gaza over many years. Jewish residents of Australia have also reported feeling intimidated by a rise in public displays of antisemitism in Sydney.
Students of Muslim faith
Muslim students and their families are at a heightened risk of Islamophobic abuse at this time. The Islamophobia Register Australia has reported that Islamophobic incidents have quadrupled since the current violence began. The abuse has included physical assaults of Muslim women and threats against mosques and Islamic schools. Many students of Muslim faith identify strongly with the plight of the Palestinian people.
Students with Lebanese heritage or Arab backgrounds
Students and their families with loved ones in Lebanon are likely anxious about their safety as the violence escalates. Hezbollah (a political party and militant group based in Lebanon) has been exchanging fire with Israeli forces. Many Lebanese residents fear a full-scale conflict will be fought in Lebanon.
Many students of Arab background and their families identify strongly with Palestine and are likely to be in a state of shock and grief as they mourn the thousands of victims as a result of Israel’s ongoing bombing of Gaza.
People in the NSW Arab community have reported heightened anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism.
Students with family members attempting to return home to Australia
On Friday 13 October, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stated that 1600 Australians were registered as being in the region of Israel, Gaza or the West Bank. Seventy-nine Australians are currently trapped in Gaza. The Australian government is in talks with foreign government to allow these citizens to cross Gaza’s border with Egypt. Repatriation flights have been arranged for Australian residents wishing to flee Israel.
Students and their families who have experienced similar violence
Students and their families who have experienced shelling, forced evacuations, kidnapping and being trapped in a violent situation are likely to be triggered at this time. News coming out of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories can cause previously traumatised individuals to feel as though they are re-experiencing their own traumatic experience. Other trauma symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance and somatic complaints may also increase in frequency and severity.
How can I support my students?
- For high school students, ensure that at least one staff member with whom the student has rapport, has been in touch with the student to ask how they and their loved ones are coping with the situation. Remind the student of the supports available to them within the school community. Arrange to catch up with the student regularly to monitor their wellbeing.
- For primary school students, ensure that a staff member checks in regularly with a parent/guardian to discuss how they and their child are coping. Allow students and parents/guardians to control how much they disclose to you.
- Work with the student to identify at least two school staff members who the student can reach out to throughout the school day if they are struggling.
Create a Calm and Predictable Environment
- It is important that educators remain impartial in their discussions with students and instead focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of their students.
- Provide students with a predictable class routine and prepare them for any changes where possible. Explain the purpose of schoolwork activities.
- Discuss options for calming and comfort with students for if they become overwhelmed during lessons or while trying to complete schoolwork.
- It can be helpful to offer some suggestions for wellbeing breaks throughout the day, such as gentle stretching, exercise, connecting with a friend, taking time to draw or paint, playing a game with a household member, going outside and noticing small, beautiful things, taking five deep, diaphragmatic breaths with slow exhales.
- Remove as many additional stressors from the students’ life as possible. For instance, consider offering an alternative time to sit tests and exams, an extension on assignment due dates and flexibility around schoolwork completion. Not only may students be struggling to concentrate and focus on these tasks at this very difficult time, but it is important that students can focus on spending time being comforted by friends and family and talking to loved ones as they try to process what is happening and brace for the tumultuous situation that is unfolding.
- Consider the topics that the student is currently studying in their subjects. Some topics in history and geography that reference war, violence, human rights violations and poverty can be particularly triggering. Students won’t be able to learn if they are being emotionally overwhelmed by their personal associations with such themes. Such topics might be challenging for a student who is presently redefining their worldview while traumatic events unfold. It may be important to consider how to sensitively present these topics and be aware of the needs of students to have control over their experiences during this time. Students may need to be given the option for alternative work to complete.
- Remind the student that education can serve as a refuge from the stressful situation providing routine, purpose, interest, positivity and hope. Remind the student how they can seek help with schoolwork.
Make Appropriate Referrals
- Ask the student (and/or parent/guardian) what would help them most at this time and make appropriate referrals.
- Referrals to STARTTS can be made by completing our referral form.
- Provide students and their families with information about the Witness to War Hotline (Free call 1800 845 198). It is a national multilingual telephone hotline for people affected by overseas conflicts. The hotline is staffed by speakers of Arabic, Dari, Hebrew, Ukrainian and English. Telephone interpreters can be used for other languages.
- Ensure the student knows how to contact 24/7 counselling services such as Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), Lifeline (13 11 14) and BeyondBlue (1300 22 4636)
- Support students to report their experiences of discrimination or vilification to the Anti-Discrimination NSW
What are the signs that a student may be struggling?
Students who are feeling overwhelmed by their reaction to the violence may show signs or report symptoms of their distress in one or more of the following ways:
- Having trouble concentrating. This may present as students asking for teacher instructions to be repeated, non-completion of work
- Being more quiet or more talkative than usual
- Sadness and tearfulness
- Outbursts of anger and/or aggression
- Reduced or increased appetite
- Lethargy or hyperactivity
- Stomach aches, headaches and/or a feeling of heaviness in their limbs
- Expressions of feelings of guilt at being in Australia, while loved ones are suffering overseas
- Expressions of feeling helpless and/or hopeless
- Spending a lot of time on their phone. Students may be feeling a very strong need to stay in constant contact with loved ones both here and overseas. Students may be anxious to receive updates about the safety of loved ones in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Supporting Parents and Carers
Many family members of students will be deeply affected by the unfolding violence. Many families will appreciate a phone call from the school (for instance, from a teacher or Community Liaison Officer), checking in with their welfare at this difficult time. It can be helpful to prepare parents/guardians via SMS ahead of time, that you will be calling and what the purpose of your call is. The staff member could ask the parent/guardian if they are happy to receive a follow-up phone call in a couple of weeks’ time to see how they are coping.
Schools can offer to support families to make a referral for counselling at STARTTS.
Self-Care for Educators
As educators and counsellors, we are not immune to the impacts of trauma. You may find that you have been personally affected, perhaps through personal links to the region, triggering of previous traumas or through empathising with affected students, colleagues and community members. Some symptoms you may recognise in yourself include a change in appetite, sleep and/or mood, nightmares, intrusive imagery, trouble concentrating, memory problems, social withdrawal, increased sensitivity to violence and/or feelings of despair and hopelessness. There are several avenues through which you can seek support.
- Through your workplace, seeking professional supervision and/or through your Employee Assistance Program.
- Private psychological services. You can talk to your GP about a mental health care plan.
- Lifeline Australia (Call: 13 11 14) provides free, confidential support and is available 24/7
- STARTTS counselling services are available to anyone in NSW who has survived trauma (including inter-generational trauma) and has had a refugee, asylum seeker or refugee-like experience.
- STARTTS in Schools has produced a series of professional learning videos on Vicarious Trauma, Resilience and Self Care.
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 1: Introduction
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 2: Consequences of Trauma
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 3: Impacts on the Practitioner
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 4: Boundaries
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 5: Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 6: Self Care and Seeking Support