On Mental Health Solidarity with Gaza

By Gabi Kirk

Evidently Saturday October 10th was World Mental Health Day, whatever that means. I think "awareness raising" when it comes to disability is totally BS. It’s 2015: if you didn’t know some people’s brains aren’t the same as others, whether from chemical differences, environmental trauma, or both, I don’t know what to say to you. But October 10th does give me an excuse to talk about something I have been meaning to anyway.

 

In one week I am running a 5K to raise money for mental health services in Gaza through UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees). I am behind my goal and asking my friends (and you, dear reader) to donate $20 today to support this. So between now and the run I’m reflecting: what am I grateful for, and why am I doing this run?

Damaged UN school and remnants of the Ministry of Interior in Gaza City, Dec. 5th, 2012. Photo via Wikimedia Commons and this blog.

On World Mental Health Day, I think about my first panic attack. I was 9 years old, and my older sister was away at a sleepover, which triggered immense anxiety. (I’m not sure why -- my sister and I are close but not best friends, and in general I’m an independent person. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned triggers are not always logical or expected.) I was in bed wide awake, in the middle of the night, and started to hyperventilate. I wanted to die and thought I could suffocate myself in my blankets if I tried hard enough. My dad somehow heard me from his room and came in and tried to soothe me.

 

Fifteen years later, my general anxiety disorder and OCD, and depression caused by both, is just part of my daily life. I was diagnosed at 14, and feel I have things mostly “under control” (as well as any of us do, I suppose). But my illnesses still surprise me. I got nervous when starting my new job and apologized the first time I had my verbal and muscle tics in a silent office. I still apologize, a lot, for my tics, for my anxiety, even though it's out of my control. I can pinpoint some triggers but not others, and still can’t say what causes ebbs and flows in my illness.

 

I am also immensely privileged. My family (both mother and father's sides) is no stranger to mental health: addiction, schizophrenia, bipolar, OCD. I remember one Passover vacation, when I saw A Beautiful Mind in theaters with my parents, grandparents, and uncle. There’s a silver lining to coming from a family with myriad mental disabilities and illnesses: the stigma is gone. We suffer and we know it. When my illness first showed up, my parents were immensely supportive. I have health insurance and a support network. I know how to get care.

 

Israel’s decade-long blockade & siege of Gaza (coming after decades-long occupation) cuts off Palestinians’ support networks. Families are separated, making healing harder and trauma worse. The blockade restricts doctors and counselors from coming in or going out, and makes it nearly impossible to get enough medical equipment. Israel enforces a constant state of trauma so that there is no "post" in PTSD. Any child in Gaza over the age of 6 has lived through three bombing campaigns. Their families are surviving daily through something I cannot even imagine. Even as I write this, the news came in that Israeli missiles killed a pregnant Palestinian woman and her 4 year old daughter. This comes after multiple Gazans were shot near the border fence earlier this week.

 

I decided to participate in a fundraising run for Gaza because it was a no brainer. I’m not usually one for walk-a-thon type things, like cancer runs, as I feel that other systemic injustices get much less attention and rarely have massive fundraising marathons. But this issue felt different. Sure, UNRWA is not ending the occupation and freeing refugees. Our support of Palestinian organizing will do that, whether through BDS, on the ground resistance in the villages, or a combination of multiple tactics. UNRWA is not "curing" mental illness (as if that were a desirable goal!) Disability justice will change what brains are valued in this world, and how we respond to trauma as communities, and how to create a world in which no new trauma is inflicted. But money for short term mental health services still does something. Direct aid to help make families' lives better is not wasted. Please, if you can, donate today.