Feeling Helpless? What Do We Do With All This Horror? Here’s a Starting Point

If you’re feeling helpless and overwhelmed with information, despair and horror, you’re not alone. Here’s a little guide to help you navigate this time – whether it’s how to feel helpful, who to donate money to, or how to talk to your children.

What do we do with all this horror? For the past few weeks, images of the attack in Israel, followed by the ongoing invasion of Gaza have been flooding our feeds and overwhelming our brains. There have been more photos of dead, wounded or traumatised children than we may have ever seen before, and it is devastating. Every hour, every day, there is a new heartbreaking update to this situation.

Social media has always been an incongruous mix of announcements but it has reached another level. Nobody deserves to die in a terrorist attack, nobody deserves to die in a prolonged bombing campaign where they have nowhere to go. People are not their governments. We all know this. But somehow the internet has embraced the ‘Team Jolie’ versus ‘Team Aniston’ mentality and applied it to the Middle East, which is quite famously a difficult region to sum up. No wonder we have whiplash.

Throw onto that the world of misinformation that we now live in and these waters seem impossible to navigate. In a time where we are somewhat expected to have opinions on everything – and be utterly SURE in those opinions, with no room for error – we are suddenly confronted with one of the worst situations in our living memory. Saying something feels risky, saying nothing feels inappropriate. So how do we stop feeling so helpless, so miserable?

Reach Out To Your Friends

If you have friends who you worry might have been affected by the rise in anti-Semitic or Islamophobic rhetoric, it’s okay to check in. Also, anyone with a pulse or access to the news or internet has no doubt seen a lot of bad things. We are all feeling more fragile than normal. During the first two pandemic years, it felt accurate to assume that everyone was one bad day away from bursting into tears – this feels apt once more.

Donate Money

In amongst the tone-deaf politicians and media circle, there are people desperately trying to get resources to those in need and save the lives of the thousands who are suffering.

If you’re keen to donate, consider giving to a charity that is currently working on the ground. Make sure you verify any donation you’re making (unfortunately scammers are out in force). Here’s a great resource for learning more about choosing the right charity.

Here’s a list of some options to donate to:

  • Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF): As an independent and impartial humanitarian organization, MSF delivers emergency medical care where the needs for their expertise are greatest—regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or politics. 
  • Unicef – Appeal for the Children of Gaza: Unicef says: We’re in Gaza providing life-saving humanitarian support to those most in need. Right now, medical equipment, food, fuel and access to safe drinking water are what’s desperately needed. Please donate to help send urgent aid to children in Gaza and the wider State of Palestine. The situation on the ground is rapidly deteriorating. More than a million people, nearly half of them children, are in danger. Kids continue to pay the highest price while the violence and fighting continues, please help us protect them.

Attend a March

There are marches around the country happening most weekends, the Palestinian Youth Aotearoa instagram account has up-to-date information on where the next ones are.

Remember: Two Things Can Be True

The terrorist attack of October 7 had a tremendously high death toll and was the deadliest day for the Jewish community since the Holocaust, and there are hundreds of hostages still missing. Palestinians have had their rights and land stripped away from them over the past few decades and have been living in what has been described as ‘an open air concentration camp.’ The Jewish community lives with an increased risk of danger and antisemitism has been on a disturbing rise for the past few years. Palestinians living in Gaza are living through a bombing campaign that has been referred to as genocide, and they are running out of food and water. The death toll is enormous. All of this is happening at once. And all of this is happening real time, live on everybody’s phones, and it is horrendous to try and live your normal life when you are aware of just how much suffering your fellow human beings are going through.

Check in on Your Children

As an adult, navigating social media right now is a daunting task. In an attempt to get the word out there about how bad things are on the ground, many people are posting graphic, horrifying images to their instagram feeds and stories, without trigger warnings. And then there are other parties, also posting graphic images, with less altruistic intentions.

In short, social media is a minefield right now (don’t even get us started on X), and is certainly no place for children. While these images are incredibly disturbing to see as an adult, the harm and distress they can cause to children mustn’t be underestimated. Ensure your child doesn’t have access to social media at the moment, and pay extra attention to what they have access to online.

Dr. Michelle Kees, a clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, told ABC News that limiting children’s exposure to these violent images, is essential.

“Research has shown us over the last several decades that exposure to war, violence, exposure to media violence, has a significant negative impact on children,” she says. “We know that children who watched a tremendous amount of this particular media coverage later report greater symptoms of anxiety and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress.”

“While they may have not been in the event, seeing the coverage personalises it at a deeper level, and is linked with some of the same kinds of mental health effects that we’ve seen for people who’ve actually experienced trauma.

It’s also a good time to make sure the lines of communication are open, in case your children have heard about what is taking place. World Vision recommends finding out what your children already know. If you’re having a conversation about it, or they ask questions, start by asking them an open-ended question to better understand what they already know. “Something like: ‘What do you know about the war that’s happening in Israel and Palestine?’ or ‘What do you know about refugees?'” is what World Vision recommends. “Then, follow up with something like: ‘How did you learn about that?’ so you can understand where they’re getting their information from. Your kids might know more than you think, or they might have heard something inaccurate.”

Shauna Tominey, a professor of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University, recommends focusing on humanity while having these discussions – while it can be important to talk about war, she says talking about Gaza, Palestine and Israel does not have to be limited to what is happening at this moment – it can be about individual people from these places and their life stories.

“Your children will have friends, classmates, and community members now and in the future with diverse identities and from diverse backgrounds,” says Shauna Tominey. “Through these conversations, we can help teach children that the identities and cultural traditions each person carries are just as important to them as yours are to you.”

It’s likely going to be an emotional topic though, so ensure they feel safe and comforted by you, whilst letting them know that it’s okay to be upset. “Let them know that all feelings are okay,” says Shauna. “Help your child express their feelings in healthy ways, such as by talking about them; sharing feelings through stories, artwork, and play; taking a walk; or in other ways.”

And then, just as we feel helpless and want to do something to help, look for ways that your children too, can help. “The really important thing for parents to understand is that, just like us, children need to feel that there is something they can do,” says Abigail Gewirtz, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University. “All of us feel more awful if we feel totally helpless—and our children are no exception.”

Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

It’s been a horrible week of news, after an already unsettling year. Many of you will have been going through your own personal crises lately – and all of us are still really recovering from living through an unsettling few years through the pandemic. It makes sense to feel emotional and overwhelmed by this latest crisis.

Maybe you’ve been trying to keep up with the news, but find it too distressing. Maybe you’ve had a moment after reading the news, that you’re told about one other sad story, which tips you over the edge into despair – or maybe it’s that moment of safely tucking your own children into bed and feeling guilty and bereft that it’s not the case for many parents out there at the moment. Sometimes, for our own mental health we need to take a break.

And no, blocking out bad news doesn’t make you a bad person. “Limiting your exposure to bad news and turning off notifications doesn’t mean you don’t care about people’s suffering,” says Georgie Harman, CEO of Beyond Blue, a not-for-profit working to reduce the impact of anxiety and depression in Australia. “In fact, taking time away from screens to do something restorative like spending time in nature, talking to a friend or playing with a pet, can be a vital act of self-replenishment that gives you the energy to be of service to others.”

But can tuning out from major world issues make you feel sort of dislocated from things? How does escapism rather than engagement line up with a participatory democracy? Are we bad people for avoiding thinking about the suffering occurring in Israel, Gaza and Palestine? Is our use of escapism apolitical or even plain wrong?

Or is there a third way, of sorts? What if you learn enough (but not too much) about world events that matter to you, and take action on what you can? One way to combat a sense of powerlessness or helplessness might be to look at our own contributions to the world. Many of us are barely getting by financially ATM, but if you can, giving a donation can help. Or, perhaps you have the opportunity to volunteer for a charity (even one that is not related to the humanitarian crisis occurring overseas currently), write a letter to an MP, or go on a protest march.

One possible ‘third way’ to engage, then disengage, in a helpful manner is deciding to look only at curated content from a trusted news source at a specific time of day. And block out news on a certain topic if it stresses or triggers you too much.

Just as everyone processes grief in different ways, there is no ‘right’ way to behave right now. If you need to create some boundaries to ensure your own mental health is in check, that is a very valid response.

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