Prof. Azy Barak’s
SAHAR Offers a Vital Virtual Shoulder to Those with Nowhere Else to
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
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 (www.sahar.org.il),
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
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
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
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
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.”
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