Rocket attacks have a surprising effect on the relationship between self-criticism and depression in Israeli teens

New research indicates that exposure to rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel disrupts the normal cycle of self-criticism and depression in adolescents. The findings have been published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

“From the starting point of my career, I have been fascinated with adolescent development and psychopathology. My doctoral dissertation, conduct at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, focused on the role of personality in adolescent depression,” said study author Golan Shahar, who is now a professor of clinical-health psychology and the Susan Zlotowsky chair of neuropsychology at Ben-Gurion University.

“During my postdoctoral training at Yale University, and later on as a faculty member at Yale University School of Medicine, I conducted a series of investigations on adolescent self-development and psychopathology, primarily depression.”

“When I decided to leave Yale and come back home to my alma mater (BGU), it was clear to me that I was going to shift my research program on adolescent development and psychopathology toward the understanding of risk and resilience processes in Israeli adolescents at the Negev, who are exposed to missile attacks from the Gaza Strip,” explained Shahar.

“The topic became even more tangible when the missile began to land at areas close to where my family and I lived, with my older daughter hitting adolescence. Thus, this research program represents a culmination of the professional and personal.”

For their study, the researchers examined data from 362 Israeli adolescents who had participated in an ongoing, longitudinal study on the developmental consequences of repeated exposure to terrorism and political violence. The participants were in the seventh through tenth grade at the start of the study and were assessed annually over 3 years.

The researchers found that self-criticism predicted an increase in depressive symptoms over time. But this relationship appeared to be disrupted among those who reported high levels of rocket attack exposure — such as being physically hurt in a rocket attack, experiencing property damage from a rocket attack, having friends or family physically or mentally hurt by a rocket attack, or having property damage from a rocket attack.

“In adolescence, self-criticism and depressive symptoms appear to cause each other over time. However, in adolescents who are exposed to particularly high levels of missile attacks, this vicious cycle involving self-criticism and depression disappears. Possibly, the attacks direct adolescents’ attention outward, preventing him/her from linking self-criticism and depression,” Shahar told PsyPost.

Like all research, the study includes some limitations.

“The study is based on a very unique sample of Israeli adolescents residing in only two places at the Northern Negev — Sderot and Shaar Hanegev — who have been chronically exposed to missile attacks. The unique characteristics of this sample limits the ability to generalize the findings to other populations,” Shahar said.

“There is much to be addressed further: What is the lived experience of adolescents exposed to the missiles, how does adolescent personality develop over time under the shade of the missiles, how do adolescent-parents relationships transform over time during this period? We are addressing these points in our current research.”

Previous research, based on the same sample of Israeli adolescents, found that exposure to rocket attacks “devastates adolescents’ mental health, leading to severe distress and violent behavior,” Shahar told PsyPost.

That study, published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found prolonged exposure to rocket attacks predicted a steep increase in violent incidents. Those incidents included physical fights that required medical treatment, gang fights, arrests for violent crimes, and carrying knives or other weapons.

But the study also found that “social support, primarily from family members, protects against this devastating effect,” Shahar said.

“The entire program of research from which this study emanated reflects basic behavioral science. I am highlighting it because too often investigators jump into developing interventions for afflicted youth without painstakingly examining causal relations between pertinent variables involved in these youth’s lives,” he added.

“Without such a painstaking examination, intervention is premature and indeed studies show that the effects of intervention with adolescents exposed to political violence have been limited. Based on our basic behavioral program of research, we have learned of the central role of family social support in the lives of afflicted individuals, and are now adopting an evidence-based family-oriented intervention to the needs of these youth.”

The new study, “Role of adolescent exposure to rockets in the links between personality vulnerability and psychopathology“, was authored by Golan Shahar and Christopher C. Henrich.