IDF soldiers are battling mental health outside the army

SOCIAL AFFAIRS: Two IDF veterans killed themselves in a matter of a couple of days this week.

 AN AGITATED participant at this week’s Knesset lobby for aid to IDF veterans with PTSD.  (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)
AN AGITATED participant at this week’s Knesset lobby for aid to IDF veterans with PTSD.
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)

The issue of how IDF soldiers who experience trauma or become disabled during their service, and the treatment they receive – or don’t receive – has come to the forefront following the suicides of two ex-soldiers.

IDF veteran Bar Klaf set himself on fire earlier this month after his request to be recognized as a disabled veteran was rejected by the Defense Ministry. He succumbed to his injuries a day later. The following day, IDF veteran Or Donio killed himself while awaiting recognition of the trauma he incurred during his military service.

This week, the Knesset lobby for aid to IDF veterans with PTSD met in an emergency gathering during the summer recess following the two deaths, to tackle the alarming phenomenon. The cases of soldiers who fall through the cracks cross social and cultural strata and are widespread.

Can soldiers talk about their mental health openly?

SITTING IN front of her old army base in Tel Aviv, Avia Fizik, now 24, says she still remembers the first time she went to an army psychologist. The petite, young woman has no qualms talking about her mental health situation during her army service. She knows what it is like to be a soldier in need of psychological help.

Although five years have passed since her discharge, she can remember the appointment as if it happened yesterday. “Before I enlisted, I went to a couple [of psychologists], but none really helped. The day I enlisted, I got sent to a really nice one, but he didn’t care much,” she says matter-of-factly.

 OMER AKUNI: ‘I’m thankful I wasn’t in a worse mental health position, because I don’t think the army really helps people who have severe mental issues.’ (credit: OMER AKUNI)
OMER AKUNI: ‘I’m thankful I wasn’t in a worse mental health position, because I don’t think the army really helps people who have severe mental issues.’ (credit: OMER AKUNI)

The topic of mental health in the IDF still carries a stigma. “Older generations create stigma and hold stigma, and all of a sudden the new generation [that is now young] are influenced and seek help,” says Hilla Hadas, executive director of Enosh, a mental health association, when asked about the stigma of mental health. 

According to the IDF, soldiers claiming mental health issues as a way to get out of service has increase in the past five years. In 2018, the number was 7.9%; by 2020 it jumped to 11.9%, and is expected to reach 13% in 2023. Despite this, many Israelis with mental health problems still want to serve in the IDF. 

But for Fizik, the choice was never hers to make. The shy, introverted woman has struggled with mental health issues since high school, when she started going to a psychologist. She says even before receiving her first draft letter, she knew that she didn’t want to go to the army. “I was in a really bad mental state. I was having a hard time accepting that I was in such a bad state. I was scared the army would make it worse,” Fizik said about not wanting to serve. 

Omer Akuni, also 24, says he, too, enlisted and served while battling mental health issues. Unlike Fizik, Akuni, who served the full two years and eight months – the IDF’s mandatory full-service requirement for male soldiers – says he always wanted to do his duty and serve.

The IDF maintains that would-be soldiers use mental health as an excuse for not serving in the military. But for Akuni, getting out of service was never a goal. He simply wanted to get his profile lowered to safeguard his mental health. 

He started the army with a profile of 82, which, according to IDF medical profile data is considered “healthy and fit for combat, but not for elite units.” 

The IDF has different profiles for soldiers which rank their mental and physical health. The highest, 97, indicates a person is healthy enough for elite combat units and all other army jobs. A 45 profile entitles the incoming soldier to have special accommodations; a 21 profile is deemed as “someone who cannot be drafted due to severe psychological or medical health issues that cannot be accommodated.”

 DR. HILA HADAS: ‘There are a lot of [soldiers] who never seek help, because they know they will be on a waiting list for months.’ (credit: TAL RAVIV)
DR. HILA HADAS: ‘There are a lot of [soldiers] who never seek help, because they know they will be on a waiting list for months.’ (credit: TAL RAVIV)

Originally assigned an army position for those with a relatively high profile, Akuni recalls that his profile was lowered to 64 by an army psychologist after he was drafted, due to his pre-existing psychological diagnosis. “I’m thankful I wasn’t in a worse mental health position, because I don’t think the army really helps people who have severe mental issues,” observes Akuni, who wanted to serve in a way that would keep him healthy throughout his mandatory service.

He says he felt a need to serve the country because everyone else was serving. “It’s less of a want and more of ‘everyone else did the army,’ so I felt like I needed to as well,” says Akuni during an interview within sight of his old base. 

The mandatory draft is a catalyst for many soon-to-be soldiers who already have a mental health diagnosis. Many try to get a “21 profile” – a mental health exception for mandatory service. 

How were other soldiers affected by their mental health during service?

SOLDIERS HAVE turned to the media to recount their experiences to get out of mandatory army service, and describe how they were personally affected after not getting released for mental health reasons.

For instance, Sapir Sluzker-Amran, who identifies as a “Mizrachi feminist activist, human rights lawyer, and community organizer,” published her story in 2017 in an online opinion piece called “Break the Silence.” She writes about attempting to commit suicide when her calls for help went unanswered.

“The system doesn’t understand because it treats soldiers with psychological problems just like Israel’s National Insurance Institute treats welfare recipients. Because there are always one or two people who try to game the system, it must mean that everyone is a fraud. Everyone is simply pretending in order to improve their situation or get something; no one has any real hardships.” 

She maintains that one of the main reasons the army has a hard time dealing with mental health issues is because its very essence is to fight. 

“The system is incapable of understanding; its role is to fight. Forever. Not to make room for losers who can’t deal – the ones who eventually commit suicide. More soldiers became statistics whom we will remember as we stand during the siren on Memorial Day. Kids who died for nothing, who called out and showed signs of distress in a system that wants only to show bravery. Those who were harassed, and those who were ashamed of seeking help. 

“In order to get to see a medical health officer, one needs to insist. One needs to fight to get help, which often doesn’t help. And who has the energy to fight, anyway?”

Akuni and Fizik concur with Sluzker-Amran’s sentiments. Both former soldiers stated their issues with commanding officers who did not help or take into account their psychological needs. “If a soldier is going to a psychologist, the commanding officer should have an understanding,” says Akuni as he recalls his time in the army. 

Fizik agrees, noting that there is so much cynicism in the army when it comes to being treated by a psychologist, that others look down on soldiers who are getting the mental health they need. “People also treat you as ‘less’ if you are going to a psychologist in the army,” recounts Fizik about her treatment by fellow soldiers. 

Their experiences are confirmed in a February 2022 article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. The study noted that many soldiers who get help in the army are not seen in the best light by fellow soldiers, or even higher-ranking commanders, according to researchers Maayan Schneider, Shirli Werner, Nirit Yavnai, Ariel Ben Yehuda, and Leah Shel. They confirm that there is a negative stigma toward soldiers who seek mental health resources and contact a specialist in the army. 

Noted Sluzker-Amran in 2017: “Every story of a soldier’s suicide brings me to tears, for a young boy whose entire life was in front of him, or a young girl who couldn’t take it anymore. For those who came back with stories and nightmares and were never given the proper help. 

“There are way too many of these stories, of these deaths. Way too many parents who don’t understand, and officers who are not interested in understanding,” she wrote.

Her words still echo five years later. In reports that continue to hit the headlines, bereaved families, all affected by a child committing suicide during army service, continue to ask what went wrong. “He didn’t leave a letter, so we’ll never know what was going through his mind,” Esther, mother of 19-year-old Amit Alexander who committed suicide while in the army, told Haaretz in 2022. 

Eight IDF soldiers have committed suicide this year

SINCE THE beginning of 2023, there have been eight suicides among active IDF soldiers, according to statistics presented by Brig. Gen. Yoram Knafo, chief of staff of the IDF Manpower Directorate, to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on June 1. This data doesn’t surprise Akuni. 

“There was a girl in my office who was released from the army for mental health issues. She tried to commit suicide and that’s why they just released her. She was left alone, basically; she didn’t have any support at home and the army released her,” Akuni says. 

In May, Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi told KAN that the rising suicide rates present a “dangerous and daunting” challenge. According to the same report, the chief of general staff also called on military authorities to find a solution to address the growing problem. 

Data from Enosh, the mental health association, shows that mental health disabilities outnumber physical disabilities among young people in Israel. 

“What we see, which for me is promising, is that the stigma is not part of their life… Mental health is ok, and they can get help,” says Enosh’s Hadas, as she hints about a better future for mental health. 

But a State’s Comptroller report published in April 2021 lambasted the IDF for mental health deficiencies. According to that report, the Mental Health Department has no criterion for deciding a soldier’s maximum waiting time for an appointment with a mental health officer. 

“There are a lot of [soldiers] who never seek help, because they know they will be on a waiting list for months… so why would [they] seek help?” says Hadas, referring to soldiers whose cases might not be severe yet who need basic mental health assistance. 

Moreover, the report showed that one in four soldiers uses the army’s mental health services and meets with either a psychiatrist or mental health officer.

“The IDF is currently working on this topic and is learning from the mistakes of the past. The comptroller’s advice, that the waiting time for a mental health officer should not be more than four weeks, will soon become an IDF order. 

“However, we note that the waiting time today is less than four weeks, and in 92% of the cases, the average waiting time is 10 days,” read an IDF Spokesperson’s response to the comptroller’s report, according to an article in The Jerusalem Post.

Is the IDF starting to do something about the situation?

ALTHOUGH THESE reports paint a dark picture, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. There are indications that the IDF has started to do something about the situation. To help keep exemption rates down, the IDF launched a program in July 2022 to enable individuals suffering from diagnosed emotional and mental health disorders to serve at bases close to their homes and return home at the end of the day, even during basic training.

An estimated 500 soldiers will be able to take part in this new track, each year. The duration of military service for these recruits will be the same as for all other soldiers – two years and eight months for men; two years for women. 

“I hated my basic training, and [this program] would have made it better,” says Akuni. 

Fizik doesn’t think the new program will be helpful. As a soldier, she went home every day but still, her mental health struggles didn’t stop. “Even though I could stop thinking about the army when I got home, it didn’t help. My mental health didn’t get better. I was still waking up and going to the base,” Fizik says about her time surviving on a daily base. 

The recent suicides seem to be making the army more aware of the need to release mentally vulnerable soldiers. A study by the Knesset shows that the number of soldiers released with a 21 profile has been increasing. 

This reporter’s repeated attempts to obtain a comment from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit reflect a frustrating experience akin to the perceived lack of care and support soldiers with mental health issues encounter, as expressed by Akuni.

After the army service, Akuni started working in customer service support and Fizik started her own jewelry company. Both still see psychologists on a regular basis to get help them face their mental health issues. Although their service wasn’t easy, they don’t regret their time in the army.

“Even though I had a really hard time in the army, I think in the long run it helped me,” says Fizik, as she looks back at her time as a soldier. Even so, she still doesn’t think it is true for most soldiers – a sentiment echoed by Akuni.

“When I hear that a soldier committed suicide, I can understand them,” he said. “Some soldiers never come back from their experiences.”

This investigative report was written as part of the investigative journalism course at Reichman University’s Communications School.