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Prof. Azy Barak’s SAHAR Offers a Vital Virtual Shoulder to Those with Nowhere Else to Turn

In mid-March, Israeli TV showed the deliberately blurred picture of a 23-year-old woman sitting on a window ledge of Tel Aviv’s tallest building, the 49-story Azrieli Tower. She was threatening to jump. Fortunately the incident had a peaceful resolution. It could have been otherwise.

Sahar, a Hebrew acronym for support and listening on the Net, is a volunteer organization that tries to prevent despondency from deteriorating to such a scenario or to convince a would-be suicide to step back from the brink. Although Sahar was not involved in the incident described, it has offered vital assistance to many thousands to choose life.

The Internet-based facility was the brainchild of Prof. Azy Barak, a psychologist in the Faculty of Education, who set up Sahar over four years ago and remains its guiding hand and the official head of the association. It was the first Web-based mental health center in the world and is still one of the few in the world that offers such assistance through the Internet.
Sahar has its work cut out for it. Officially, Israel experiences three cases of suicides every two days, and some and over 5,000 suicide attempts over the course of a year, according to Barak. The U.S., in comparison, sees 120 suicides each day. Hundreds of thousands more are in states of deep depression, resulting from financial emotional, or social distress, and from other causes that could deteriorate to a suicide attempt.

As high as these rates seem, “Sahar has significantly reduced the percentage of youth suicides in Israel,” he states. Barak bases this claim on the fact that “whereas other societies have increased rates of adolescent suicides in recent years, the Israeli rate has stabilized” since the unique assistance center began operating.

Every day, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people, says Barak, access the site (, which at this stage is Hebrew-speaking only. The site is rich in content, providing information about a range of distressful conditions, as well as the names and addresses of therapists and clinics where help is available and whether the service involves a fee. There are group forums and individual chat sessions with well-trained helpers. There are also links to other relevant sites. The Sahar site itself, Barak stressed, is always updated and completely free of charge to users.

Whether they use the form published on the site or merely write in through their own email, 10-50 people a day, ranging in age from youngsters just ten or twelve years old to senior citizens, write e-mails to Sahar. Some just want to share their story, their pain, he said. Some are actively seeking help, an answer to deal with problems ranging from eating disorders to sexual assault to contemplating suicide.

In addition, Sahar goes live every night from 9 p.m. to 12 midnight. An average of 25 Internet users a night access its synchronous, real-time chat opportunity with a paraprofessional helper. Some are doing so for the first and only time, others are repeat “callers.” These individual chats, which Barak makes clear are not intended for one-on-one therapeutic dependence, gives callers an opportunity to “pour their hears out, to spill their guts” and to receive a sympathetic response in return.
“People will relate things on the Internet they would not otherwise share,” the psychologist comments. “Not on a one-to-one basis in person and not even on the phone. So you get to know what the person intends.”

Those who chat with a helper, just like those who send emails or access the site in general, remain anonymous. Barak, who has written extensively on the subject, holds this feature to be one of the advantages of on-line counseling. Nevertheless, he has an arrangement with the police. If the helper perceives an immediate threat, the “caller’s” location and, if possible, identity are ascertained, and the police are notified to try to save the person. He could recall only one case of not being able to find a would-be suicide’s location (since the person connected to the Net through a computer class); in all the other hundreds of cases, emergency rescue teams located and approached the person-at-risk on time.

Four online support groups are also maintained and monitored: for children, adults, soldiers, and for those who want to express themselves creatively through poems, stories, etc. As with forums in general, users enter and leave the Sahar support-groups at will, sometimes several times a day, but about two hundred new messages come in every day.

Each day brings its share of shocking stories, Barak relates. “People with nowhere to go, looking for a shoulder to cry on.” Most of the “people” are youths. “Youths—those up to age 21—comprise 70 percent of referrals to Sahar,” he replies when asked who enters the site to chat. “They have no money for therapists and are dependent on their parents, most of whom don’t know or don’t want to know about their child’s distress. Besides,” he notes, “youth are more attuned to the Internet.”

Barak is firmly convinced that if Sahar closes down, there will be more mental deterioration among Israeli youth, more severely distressed kids, more school dropouts, and more suicides in this age group. “Our success speaks for itself,” he states, pointing to proven successful intervention in more than one hundred incidents of forestalling a suicide, at times when the despondent individual held a gun or stood on a high balcony. Sahar has been instrumental, too, in preventing hundreds of more cases from deteriorating to a life-threatening situation.

A counseling psychologist who gained his doctorate in the field from Ohio State University, Barak believes that people who talk about suicide want to speak about their distress to someone, but don’t know where to turn or think that others don’t want to hear. Sahar offers an outlet to speak and to be heard, and Israelis in general, he says, are not afraid to speak.
Americans, in contrast, do not open up as readily, in Barak’s opinion. This is one reason that a vital support site like Sahar has not taken root in the United States. Perhaps a more powerful deterrent has to do with the legal implications of such a site. In the U.S., he says, people are more afraid of the legal implications of giving advice to an anonymous caller. They fear being sued if the person seeking help has a dangerous condition that is not revealed and, consequently, receives improper advice. They even fear being sued for not helping a person out of a distressful situation.

“So far,” he smiles, “no one has complained or sued. Just the opposite.”
The paraprofessional helpers who lend an ear to the shocking stories they receive every day and provide a virtual shoulder on which to cry come from all walks of life. There are teachers, students, computer programmers, nurses, and people from other vocations. All are volunteers and share certain common denominators: maturity, an empathetic nature, and most importantly a desire to help.

Volunteer psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental-health professionals—Sahar has only one paid employee, a manager—monitor these helpers in terms of supervision, guidance, and emotional support. Barak, who also volunteers his services, oversees the running of the program and the training of the paraprofessionals, who must first go through an intensive training program before being allowed to lend that shoulder. In response to ads placed twice a year, about 150 persons apply to be helpers, but a weeding out process leaves an average of 15 to undergo training. Half of these usually drop out. Then there is a kind of internship period. The entire process lasts half a year.

He would like to train a replacement. He would also like to have Russian and Arabic-speaking psychologists and paraprofessionals, as well as computer programmers in these languages to prepare software programs. It’s all a matter of money, which was the reason for his initial skepticism that he could implement the idea of providing mental support through the Internet to those in distress and to keep it running. Relying on donations, including “a little donation” from the Ministry of Health, for the NIS 500,000 annual budget (approx. $100,000) takes out too much of his time, Barak complains.

As it is, the amount of work and time, he puts into Sahar professionally cuts into the time available for his research. Why does he do it and why does he feel it should continue and develop? “Sahar constitutes an implementation of my academic work and research,” he states. “It is for the community’s welfare. It is my contribution to people who have no where else to turn.”


In This Issue:

President’s Focus - Battling Unjust Resolutions

Prof. Azy Barak’s SAHAR Offers a Vital Virtual Shoulder to Those with Nowhere Else to Turn

University Joins War on Drugs,
Campaign Is Integral to Interdisciplinary Clinical Center’s Service

Kidma Project Helps Students Face Their Identities

University Will Not Be Silent in Face of UK Boycott

Anat Liberman Is New External Relations Head

Prof. Majid Al-Haj to Be New Dean of Research

Prof. Sophia Menache – New Dean of Graduate Studies

Prof. Menachem Mor—Dean of Humanities

Virtual Open House Proves a Big Hit

Students Have an Address for Complaints: Professor Schatzker, Their Ombudsman

Computer Science and Occupational Therapy Team Up for Virtual Reality Conference
Student Develops Innovative Technology to Deal with Post-Traumatic Stress

Giora Lehavi: His Job Is to Check on Quality Management, and Other Standards

University’s Sports Teams Prove a Winner in More Ways than One

Student Publishes His Road to Wisdom

Honors and Awards

Mother and Son—in utero—Studied Hebrew at University’s Summer Ulpan

University’s China Connection Continues

Unique Algorithm Enables Better Mobile Wireless Communication




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