A traumatic life-changing incident can occur in an instant. They’re unplanned, devastating and the effects can haunt a person for years to come.

Seeing the dire need for assisting those psychologically impacted by harrowing events, United Hatzalah opened its Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit a year ago last May.

All United Hatzalah volunteers must take on some form of psychological first-aid training, so they can wear both hats at the scene of an accident. As such, they are the first organization in Israel to have mandatory five hours of training in psychological first aid for all EMS personnel.

But those five hours are just the tip of the iceberg. Responders who want to be more involved in helping those who suffer psychologically after a traumatic event – like a miscarriage or car accident – can enroll in a special course where an entire foundation of psychotrauma training is given to them.

Traditionally, responders are trained to focus on the physical: Who is hurt, who is injured and how can they get treated as quickly as possible. Those on the sidelines are often dismissed or told to walk it off.

“Many of our responders have realized the value of learning this skill set in order to better help others at traumatic incidents who may not have sustained physical injuries as well as helping themselves,” the unit’s director Miriam Ballin explained, speaking of some United Hatzalah volunteers who enter the course and find it is an eye-opening experience for them.

Almost 200 responders have enrolled thus far, many of them certified psychologists and social workers.

Ballin, who herself is a certified psychotherapist, says this kind of training is essential.

Recalling the harrowing terrorist attack in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood last January, Ballin recalls rushing to the scene and witnessing “people rolling on the ground in emotional anguish” and realized that helping these people is just as critical as treating the wounded.

“We assess people and give them a support network. Maybe they need help with a social worker maybe not. If necessary, they’re transferred to a hospital if they need it,” she explained. “We’re there to provide support until another party is able to take over.”

The unit’s main purpose is to address a person’s critical needs at a time of crisis: offer them safety, a place to express themselves and information on what to expect next.

“When we come to a scene of trauma, it is important that we are able to be there and help them recognize that what they’ve just gone through is traumatic, and be able to tap into their own inner strength to be able to find a way to get this support,” team leader Rickie Rabinowitz said.

Studies show that this kind of treatment works in the long-term.

Specifically, those who receive psychological treatment at a traumatic scene are far less likely to develop long-lasting psychological or emotional disorders further down the road.

Volunteering for the unit though, entails a financial and professional sacrifice, Ballin acknowledged:

“It’s so unbelievable. They can charge a lot of money per hour and they tell their clients that there’s a 5% chance that they have to get up and leave in the middle of a consultation,” she said.

Chaya Sarah Rabi, a social worker in Jerusalem, believes the sacrifice is well worth it. “It’s really nice to be able to volunteer and use my training to give back to the community,” she said. “It helps me understand trauma from a new perspective. These are regular normal people who experienced something outside themselves.”

Rabinowitz believes taking care of one’s mind should be part and parcel of administering treatment. “I pride myself in taking care of people’s mind, body and soul,” she said.

In her opinion, the three leaders in charge of the unit make up one cohesive team that enables the unit to run smoothly.

“Miriam is a bulldozer – she gets things done; I’m an academic; and Avi [Steinhartz] is a great ‘people person.’ That’s what’s amazing about our unit; we complement each other in so many different ways; that’s what makes this unit work,” said Rabinowitz, who has an MA in sociology and teaches post-high-school Torah classes.

Steinhartz, who has been a medic for 27 years, hopes that this unit will set a trend for responders all over the world.

He explained that because the unit capitalizes on United Hatzalah’s record-breaking response time, innovative technology and sophisticated dispatch center, it already has an advantage.

“I wanted to revolutionize EMS response across the world,” Steinhartz said. “We’ve gotten numerous requests from countries around the world who asked us to present our method to them. This is a game-changer. I believe four years from now every EMS system will have to have some sort of psychotrauma unit training,” he predicted.

This article was prepared in cooperation with United Hatzalah.