Security and Defense: Suicide watch

As the IDF inducts more troubled youth, it has launched a new program to identify and help those who might become a danger to themselves.

November 26, 2010 16:16
4 minute read.
Illustrative photo

Soldier Depressed 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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With a month left, 2010 appears to be winding down into one of the quietest years Israel has ever experienced from a security perspective.

Fewer than 10 people – soldiers and civilians – have been killed in terror attacks since the beginning of the year, down from 15 in 2009. In addition, rocket fire from the Gaza Strip dramatically dropped from 570 projectiles in 2009 to fewer than 130.

The quiet along the borders is understood within the IDF to be the result of the Second Lebanon War with Hizbullah in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in the Gaza Strip two years ago. While both Hamas and Hizbullah have used the years since the conflicts to dramatically boost their military capabilities – Hizbullah, which had around 15,000 rockets during the 2006 war, is now believed to possess more than 40,000 – both terror organizations are believed to be deterred, at least for the time being.

That is why it was no surprise when, at the Sderot Conference several weeks ago, a study showing that suicide is currently the leading cause of death within the IDF was released.

In a paper entitled “A Professional Military for Israel,” Boaz Arad of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies claimed that one of the prices the country pays for a compulsory draft and a “people’s army” is that a significant number of soldiers will commit suicide during their service. Arad brought statistics showing that on average 35 soldiers kill themselves every year.

This was indeed the case – up until 2006, when the IDF began implementing a new plan aimed at limiting the number of suicides. In 2009, only 21 soldiers killed themselves, in comparison to 35 in 2005. So far this year there have been around 25 suicides.

This is also not a problem that only exists in the IDF.

The US military, for example, has been grappling with increasing numbers of suicides since the beginning of the last decade as a direct result of wars it is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The main problem is the social divide a soldier encounters when returning from the battlefield to American suburbia.

This is less of a problem here, because unless there is a war, all soldiers get home at least once every 20 days or so.

ACCORDING TO studies conducted by the IDF Medical Corps’s Mental Health Division, most of the suicides are the result of external elements – a breakup with a girlfriend, challenges at home or a mental problem that existed before the soldier was drafted.

But as Arad accurately pointed out, “One of the tragic prices Israel will pay due to the ‘people’s army’ ethos is that it will be accompanied by suicides.” He highlighted two major internal factors – access to a weapon and the natural difficulty in acclimating to a strict military framework.

“There is a lot that needs to be done like increasing a commander’s awareness of the problem and working to identify which soldiers need help,” a senior Mental Health Division officer said this week, noting, however, that general public statistics are one suicide for every 10,000 youths aged 15 to 25.

Due to the increasing number of draft dodgers, in 2008 the IDF began allowing youths who previously would have received an exemption from service due to mental health problems to enlist.

“People who have serious problems still receive exemptions,” the officer explained. “But youths who have problems that are treatable, such as difficulty in acclimating to a new framework, do not need to automatically be denied their right to serve in the military.”

This new policy has led to the annual enlistment of hundreds who previously would not have been drafted.

On the surface, this should have led to an increase in the number of suicides, but the number is dropping.

Behind this ostensible contradiction is a program started by the Mental Health Division and the Manpower Branch, under which the Medical Corps has raised awareness among officers, holding regular seminars and workshops for them so they can identify subordinates who are struggling.

The plan also created a special mechanism for investigating suicides by a committee, led by a colonel, which includes representatives from the unit in which the suicide occurred and from the Medical Corps and the Manpower Branch.

The IDF has also added more mental health officers.

Last year, 20 new psychologists were hired and deployed throughout its various units.

“Everyone is our sensor, from the soldier and his or her comrades, to the commanders and the family,” the officer explained.

Lastly, in a revolutionary move, the Mental Health Division succeeded in convincing the military to limit the number of soldiers who take weapons home with them during leaves, mostly over the weekend.

“Part of the problem is the accessibility of weapons and by taking their gun away from soldiers who don’t need it when they are home, we can cut the number,” the officer said, stressing, however, that if someone really wants to commit suicide he will ultimately find a way.

While this program will not completely eradicate suicides within the IDF, it can keep the number down to a minimum, and allow the IDF to recruit more soldiers while assisting them in dealing with their challenges.

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