Stressing the point

June 28, 2017 by Grant Blashki
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More than 260 participants from 16 countries attended a two-day conference on post-traumatic stress (PTSD) in Jerusalem.


Ron Finkel, Amos Oz and Marlene and Abe Zeiwer

It happened to coincide with the visit to Israel of American president, Donald Trump.  No guesses which was the more exciting and interesting.

It was a remarkable conference in many ways, not the least of which was the location: Jerusalem has been a flashpoint in inter-communal violence since the First Intifada in 1987, resulting in many people experiencing PTSD and other stress-related conditions.  We were, in a sense, meeting at the coalface.

The first conference of its kind in Israel was developed by Hadassah Hospital and Hadassah Australia, the largest non-government funder of the Jerusalem Crisis Intervention Center.

Nearly 270 participants from 16 countries gathered at The Dan Hotel on Mount Scopus to participate in a two-day, high-quality scientific program about post-traumatic stress.  Importantly, there were Palestinian child psychologists and other therapists from the West Bank and Gaza.  I say, importantly, because their communities are also experiencing many of the issues faced by Israelis, so it was important to get their viewpoint and learnings as well.

It became clear to me that in the area of health, there are close, long-standing and mutually-rewarding relationships between Israelis and Palestinians.  These have survived despite the inter-communal challenges over the last 30 years.  They point to a way forward in other areas where co-existence is still a dream.

The conference was the brainchild of Prof Leon Piterman, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Monash University (Berwick and Peninsula), and Ron Finkel, President of Hadassah Australia, together with Professor Omer Bonne, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Professor David Forbes from the University of Melbourne stepped up to co-chair the event and brought the world’s leaders in the field together for an outstanding conference program.

The keynote address at the opening dinner was delivered by Amos Oz, regarded as Israel’s most important living author.  He spoke about his famous novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, and he related his own experiences to the familial aspects of depression and suicide. In his special way, he weaved a narrative which spanned the personal, the political and the emotional. He brought a perspective that one only can achieve in the later years of life after an extraordinary career such as his.

Grant Blashki

Participants were also treated to a front row seat to observe Yom Yerushalayim celebrations from the rooftop of Beit Shmuel where the conference dinner was held.  Ron Finkel joked that the light and fireworks show were planned for us in honour of the conference.  We couldn’t help but reflect on this unique moment in history; it was exactly 50 years since the Jewish people woke to a reunified Jerusalem.

The plenary sessions were really off the charts, and I had to text my children that unusually today I felt like the dumbest guy in the room! This was not a conference that had presentations just to fill the spaces; indeed, some very critical and timely fundamental debates about the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder were in full flight – how it is diagnosed, what criteria, and how it should be treated were fiercely debated and discussed. What struck me was that the speakers brought a strong scientific base to their arguments, while integrating a very humanistic and clinical perspective based on many years of experience.

Many colleagues from leading centres of learning and research around the world commented to me that this was truly a world-class conference.

Prof Arieh Shalev from New York gave a wonderful overview for people who were new to the field (like me!); sometimes the most brilliant people make complex things seem simple. Prof Jayashri Kulkarni did Australia proud, giving an inspirational and much-needed women’s perspective to PTSD, especially in relation to domestic violence. Prof. Richard Bryant provided deep insights on managing prolonged grief, all based on a meticulous set of research data. Prof Mario Mikulincer opened my eyes to the importance of attachment theories and how people really need a secure base to recover, and as a GP this really resonated with me in terms of the great job GPs often do in simply providing a safe haven and secure base for disturbed patients. Prof Alexander McFarlane enlightened us about the prolonged impacts of traumatic stress. Prof Neil Greenberg from the UK and Prof Zahava Solomon gave brilliant papers about the armed forces. Some of the presentations from members of the IDF were a real eye opener, exposing the vast challenges they have in taking care of their young people in extreme combat situations.

The parallel sessions consisted of very high quality, short (10 minutes was not long enough) presentations about various research projects and intervention projects being undertaken around the world. Quite seriously, many of these presentations would usually be the subject of plenary sessions in their own right, and it would be nice to see more time for these presentations in future conferences.

Australians were overrepresented at this conference, and as is often the case, I met a lot of new Aussies even though we live in the same country. I felt very proud that many Australians had been attracted to the Conference as a result of the successful marketing efforts of Hadassah Australia which was the initiator and funder of the beautiful Healing and Environmental Garden at Hadassah Hospital’s Mt Scopus campus, where we enjoyed drinks, canapés and jazz on the second night.

To my mind, conferences such as these are a fantastic answer to those who seek to isolate Israeli academics through idiotic boycotts.  Interestingly, at the time of the conference, the leading medical journal in the world, The Lancet, chose to run an edition dedicated to high-quality Israeli research. This was a real turnaround after they published a highly critical and unfair letter about Israel back in 2014. This about-face followed the editor’s visit to Israel where he witnessed first-hand the stellar quality of the medical research community in Israel.

As you can sense, I am very excited about how this conference came together and let’s hope it’s the first of many. There was certainly interest and demand from speakers and attendees from around the world, and the conference easily could have gone for another day or two. All credit to Ron Finkel for his unstoppable enthusiasm and optimism.  Another hero of the conference was Professor David Forbes who leads the Phoenix Centre for Post Traumatic Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and who we tapped on the shoulder in the early days to help with his professional networks.  In fact, David ended up co-chairing the conference and was a wonderful leader of the program.

Look out for further iterations of this conference as it was really something special.

Associate Professor Grant Blashki of Melbourne University’s Nossal Institute for Global Health recently returned from Jerusalem where he attended the first International Conference on Trauma and Mental Health to be held in Israel.

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