newsIsrael at War

‘Israel faces the worst mental-health crisis in its history’

An interview with Israeli Health Minister Uriel Bosso, who took office five days after Hamas's Oct. 7 massacre.

Knesset Health Committee Chairman Uriel Busso leads a committee meeting at the Knesset on July 3, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Knesset Health Committee Chairman Uriel Busso leads a committee meeting at the Knesset on July 3, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Israeli Health Minister Uriel Busso took office about a week after Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel. In his first interview since assuming the post, Busso spoke about the challenges being faced by Israel’s health system during the war, which he said had brought about the country’s worst-ever mental health crisis ever.

Since the outbreak of the war, Israeli hospitals have treated approximately 6,000 people.

“The health system was the first to come to its senses on the first terrible day of the war,” said Busso. Prior to Oct. 7, hospitals’ worst estimates of mass-casualty events involved scenarios of 150-200 arriving in emergency rooms at once, he added.

“In practice, on that horrific Saturday, 700 wounded arrived at the Soroka hospital [in Tel Aviv] in one day—a number that kept growing,” he said. Moreover, he said, “All this was carried out when many of the medical and nursing staff members had family members or friends who were murdered, kidnapped, or injured in the war. I get chills when I talk about it.”

Busso, 50 andh a father of six, lives in Bnei Brak. In addition to his yeshiva studies, he served as a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces. Prior to being elected to Knesset, Busso managed educational institutions and served as deputy mayor of Petach Tikva.

According to Busso, one of the critical issues currently being faced by the health system is the fact that fewer than half of hospital wards and operating rooms are fortified against missiles. According to Busso, “We are prepared to evacuate hospitals in the north to the center of the country if necessary, and are preparing for the difficult scenarios that exist in the security system for the continuation of the war.”

Israel is working as quickly as possible to provide protection for some of these wards, he said. “The total cost of fully protecting all the hospitals in the country is approximately 4 billion shekels ($1 billion).”

According to the minister, the COVID pandemic prepared the health system to quickly move into emergency mode, “And the medical teams applied this experience in an exceptional way immediately after the beginning of the terrorist attack—treating thousands of wounded and preparing for the expansion of the war.”

In the fight against COVID, Israel’s health system “demonstrated extraordinary abilities and was praised throughout the world, and this experience has now helped to deal with an amount of wounded not foreseen even in the most extreme scenarios that existed in the Israeli health system,” he said.

‘We’re all traumatized’

However, according to Busso, it is mental trauma that poses the most serious problem, at least in part because the country’s mental health system has been neglected for years, he said.

The country was currently facing the “most serious mental health event” in its history, he said. It is not just the Israeli citizens that witnessed the horrors of Hamas’s attack firsthand that have been affected, he explained.

“We are all in a certain state of anxiety, we are all traumatized now,” he said. “For example, a woman living in Beit Shemesh approached me in Bnei Brak, [she] looked very frightened and asked to speak with me. She told me that she is not only afraid of the missiles but also of the air-raid sirens themselves,” he continued. “This is a woman who is in a mental crisis just because of the sirens, [and] there are many like her.”

According to Busso, the ministry is planning a series of actions and initiatives to try to tackle the issue, including proactively locating those in need of assistance and employment through the health funds to employ “thousands” of qualified therapists to work as “psychological mentors.” The ministry also plans to provide hundreds of new rehabilitation beds nationwide, he added.

‘I know the system’

Regarding claims that his wartime appointment to a position that requires adjustment time could negatively impact the health system, Busso said that he had gained familiarity with systems workings during his time as chairman of the Knesset Health Committee.

“I got to know the whole world of concepts,” he said. Without such familiarity, he added, a situation could certainly arise in which “in a discussion with the Health Ministry director-general, after 10 minutes the concepts discussed would be Chinese.”

Moreover, he continued, during wartime, it was better for the country to have a full-time health minister (Arbel, his predecessor, served as both health and interior minister).

“Even though the previous minister did an excellent job … if there were 30 hours in a day there would be work for all those hours,” he said.

A severe budget deficit

Busso emphasized that the successful functioning of hospitals and health funds in the current conditions was in spite of a severe chronic budget deficit in the health system. According to Busso, a budget of about 20 billion shekels ($5 billion) is needed.

While he refused to say whether he would demand such a budget after the war, he insisted that “after the war, the state’s view of the health system must go up a notch. I am not prepared to remain in a situation where an Israeli citizen waits three to four months for an MRI scan, it is a matter of life and death.”

Shortening patient queues would be his top priority after the war, he said, “and even more so after everyone understands that health cannot be separated from security.”

This is a version of an article originally published by Israel Hayom.

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