While the IDF has succeeded in lowering the rate of suicides in the military by 75% since efforts began, public trust in the IDF's reporting on the matter dropped in 2020 to just 38%, according to a new report presented to the Knesset Subcommittee for Personnel in the IDF on Tuesday.
Nine incidents of suspected suicide were reported in the IDF in 2020, while 12 incidents were reported in 2019. Most of the incidents involved men in mandatory service using a weapon who had no reported issues with personal affairs.
OC Manpower Directorate Maj.-Gen. Moti Almoz told the committee that there are likely ways to further decrease the suicide rate in the IDF, as most are preventable because people tend to sink slowly, and they meet people who could disrupt their intent to commit suicide if those people recognize it correctly, listen and provide a shoulder to lean on.Almoz stressed that commanders and soldiers need to be educated on the matter but that this is a challenge as they are often switched between positions, meaning that new commanders have to be educated on a constant basis and soldiers can often end up in positions where they don't know anyone and end up feeling alone.
He added that in every incident of suspected suicide or attempted suicide, an investigation is opened by military police and afterwards a command investigation is conducted which is brought to the head of the Manpower Directorate and the branch commander or the regional commander.
"The goals of the investigation are to clarify responsibility, provide as complete a factual picture to the family, and draw lessons," explained Deputy Chief Military Prosecutor Lt.-Col. Matan Solomesh. "Compared to a decade ago, and as instructed by the chief of staff today – except in very exceptional cases where it is necessary to complete the investigation – within 8 months of the case, the process must be completed in both the IDF and the State Attorney's Office," he said.
THE IDF also has directives and capabilities in place in case a soldier goes missing, to find him as quickly as possible.
"The loss of a soldier is a disaster that the family faces. We come to them during the first month and ask them for possible leads – as knowledge, not just as testimony – and we ask the family to see [the police] as kind of investigators on their behalf," Almoz told the committee. "It is true that sometimes there is a conflict of interest because there are issues of guilt, but we want to check all their information. The cornerstone is transparency: everything on the table, with all the pain – and it is natural to have pain when there are aspects of responsibility, guilt and punishment, but it is impossible to say transparency only in the headlines."
Prof. Tamar Hermann from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) told the committee that she was surprised by the information presented concerning prevention and response efforts, considering the lack of public trust in the IDF on the issue.
Despite the continuing drop in suicide rates, trust in the military's reporting of suicide incidents dropped in 2020 to just 38%, according to the IDF. Younger Israelis tended to be more distrustful of IDF reporting on the issue, with just 29% of 18-24 year olds stating that they trust the IDF on the issue, compared to 44% of Israelis 55 and older.
Additionally, women trust the IDF on suicide reporting less (30%) than men do (45%) and left-wing Israelis trust it about the same amount less (26%) than right-wing Israelis do (40%). Some 45% of combat soldiers trust the IDF on the issue, while only 28% of Israelis who did not serve in the IDF do so.
Trust in the IDF in general decreased in 2020, dropping to 82% among Jewish Israelis and 34.8% among Arab-Israelis, according to the IDI. Trust in the IDF Spokesperson's Unit stood at 64% in 2020, while trust in the IDF's reporting on the recruitment of haredim (ultra-Orthodox) stood at just 32%.
Hermann stressed that there may be problems with how the IDF's efforts to prevent suicides have been presented to the public and that this issue should be considered in light of its importance concerning public trust.
MAJOR-GENERAL (res.) and chairwoman of the committee MK Orna Barbivay stressed that the IDF needs to address the lack of public trust as it "affects the legitimacy and ethos of service in the IDF and therefore a focused effort must be made to bridge the gap by full transparency (without harming the privacy of the individual)."
"We are constantly learning from any case or experience, and working with professional literature in order to develop effective treatment strategies," said Col. Ariel Ben Yehuda, Head of the IDF's Mental Health Department. "For example, the recommendation is to reduce the number of weapons for those who do not need them," he said. "Unlike civilians, in the military the most common means of suicide is firearms – which is exacerbated by the fact that weapons are located with soldiers – but the Operations Division is crucial regarding the issue of firearms and we are there to help shape policy."
Prof. Gil Salzman, chairman of the National Council for the Prevention of Suicide, told the committee that Israel is below the global average suicide rate per capita, and the IDF is "well below" that rate compared to other armies in the world, as well as being below the average suicide rate in the age groups of service members, including the non-serving age group in Israel.
"It is clear that each case is a world in its entirety," he said, "but as a scientist, [I say that] the suicide rate in the IDF is very low, and I declare to the protocol that it is not right to criticize the IDF on the subject," adding that people have hidden their depression in order to enlist, but that more people are beginning to talk about it – which is how the issue can be treated and supervised.
Earlier this month, the IDF announced that it would increase efforts to prevent suicides in the military, following conclusions drawn over the past year.
Udi Shaham contributed to this report.