Nature society transforms to provide mental health support after Hamas attacks

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Nature society transforms to provide mental health support after Hamas attacks

The venerable Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has turned itself into Nature For the Protection of Society for teenagers and adults struggling with trauma.

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

SPNI has devised various nature programmes, under the umbrella of Nature Heals
SPNI has devised various nature programmes, under the umbrella of Nature Heals

Since the day after 7 October, the venerable Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has turned itself into Nature For the Protection of Society, with a range of programmes offering mental health respite to teenagers and adults unable to deal with the trauma of the Hamas massacres.

As Jay Shofet, SPNI’S director of partnerships and development, explained: “Already on Saturday night and Sunday morning (Oct 7 and 8), our field schools in the south were spontaneously filling up with evacuees from kibbutzim and places such as Sderot and Ofakim. They weren’t official places — but people were fleeing”.

SPNI decided to set up temporary emergency shelters in their field schools. “We took in more than 200 families in October and we gave them love and three meals a day. We provided all kinds of nature respite activities for the kids and the adults; we set up a pre-school system and mother and baby rooms with all kinds of dedicated supplies. We brought in local doctors and social workers, volunteers, some retired.”

When the SPNI leaders found that teenage boys had nothing to do while evacuated, they contacted the Brothers in Arms group of former reservists, which had suspended its anti-judicial reform protests and become a major conduit for support and aid post-October 7. “That same day they sent down a truckful of sports equipment for the kids”.

Meanwhile, SPNI field schools in the north were filling up, too, this time not with evacuees, but with reservists who had been called up, but for whom there was no room on their army bases.

SPNI has a four-day outward bound desert programme for displaced teenagers aged 16-18.

Until the government got organised and began paying for evacuee accommodation, it was civil groups such as SPNI providing practical answers. The Society even turned two of its field schools into “pop-up public schools”, aimed at young kids whose education had been disrupted.

“A lesson we drew from hosting people in that first month, is that we, at SPNI, had one of the answers to the national trauma. It is scientifically proved that nature heals. Even [being with nature] for a couple of hours lowers your anxiety and stress and trauma. The Ministry of Health has been saying that Israel needs to find non-pharmacological solutions — and we have one of the perfect answers, in nature”.

Accordingly, since the end of October, SPNI has devised various nature programmes, under the umbrella of “Nature Heals”, aimed at helping people from all over Israel. Shofet said: “We have a four-day ‘outward bound’ desert programme for displaced teenagers aged 16-18. These are kids who have been living in cramped conditions in hotel rooms with their families, often sharing a room or even a bed for almost three months now. They are spiralling into depression and drug use”.

Teens from the southern kibbutzim have found their school cohorts broken up. Sometimes, says Shofet, “they don’t have school at all, or if they do have school, they don’t go because they’re just not motivated”.

Candles and a knitted image of Israel’s flag in memory of the victims of the Hamas terror attack. Credit: Paul Zinken/dpa/Alamy Live News

SPNI began taking teens to the desert in groups of 40 at the end of November. So successful were these trips that so far the Society has taken more than 800 participants. “We challenge them physically, there’s tough hiking… and the fact that they don’t have cellphone reception, is just a whole other world. It’s been a revelation when they come back from these programmes.”

There are also day hikes on offer for adult evacuees in Eilat or the Dead Sea, and even short two to three hour programmes. SPNI is also beginning to work with the families of IDF reservists to try to help those stuck at home while the reservist is serving in the military.

“The problem is way bigger than us”, says Shofet. “There is a huge mental health problem in Israel, and we don’t have as many professionals in the field as we need. We are talking about high-functioning people who are traumatised and depressed and stressed”.

In a normal year SPNI raises two-thirds of its income from eco-tourism, from groups staying in its field schools, school trips, guided hikes, with 20 per cent coming from the Ministry of Education. This is not a normal year, however, and — somewhat to SPNI’s surprise —it has received a commitment from the small Ministry of Environmental Protection to match up to $600,000 which it has raised for its “Nature Heals” programmes.

In Britain, there is a friends’ group, a registered charity called UKSPNI, to which people can donate at

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