As both a mass casualty researcher and a veteran of the Israeli army, the thoughts of Stevan Hobfoll, PhD, are never far from the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Hobfoll, a psychologist and professor at Rush University Medical Center, is able to remain a level-headed scientist despite all of the emotions that come with knowing his former home is in turmoil. He does this partly by using the same techniques he teaches to some U.S. military medical service personnel as part of their trauma training at Rush prior to deployment.
"The main coping mechanism is having a true and deep-seeded belief that what you’re doing is right and makes a difference," he says. "You gain strength off the fact that you’re making a difference, so you’re able to detach yourself from some of the more emotional parts."
It’s a skill that has helped make Hobfoll one of the world’s most trusted authorities on mass casualties, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Israelis and Palestinians, and teaching military members how to deal with stress on the battlefield. His work has earned him lifetime achievement awards this year from both the American Psychological Association’s (APA) trauma division and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
"What sets Stevan’s work apart is his profound practical impact on the treatment of trauma and especially mass casualty in regions around the world," says Charles Benight, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, who wrote Hobfoll’s nomination letter to the APA. "His impact may be most felt in regions of the world where psychiatry and psychological care is nowhere to be found and people are suffering from disaster and war."
Hobfoll is part of a group of scientists who have been studying both Palestinians and Israelis to try and offer insight into the suffering of each side, which he hopes will perhaps lead to "some pathways to understanding." He is the co-author of a recently released article in the medical journal The Lancet that argues, based on past research, that PTSD suffered by Palestinians and Israelis in the conflict makes them more likely to pursue retaliation than peace.
In 2007, Hobfoll wrote the "Five Essential Elements of Immediate and Midterm Mass Trauma Intervention." It’s a document that has influenced reaction plans to tragic events around the world, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting.
Yet he feels like there’s so much more to contribute. There’s more research to be done and more U.S. soldiers to prepare to cope with combat stress, which is part of an intensive, five-day training program some U.S. military personnel receive at Rush.
Who better to teach them coping mechanisms than someone who once helped patrol the West Bank?
"As a psychologist, I hear about terrible things," Hobfoll says. "People say, ‘How can you stand this stuff?’ But you’re energized from helping. You have to be built a certain way for it."