IDF takes on problem of suicides

Suicide the number-one cause of death for IDF soldiers.

soldier in silhouette 88 (photo credit: )
soldier in silhouette 88
(photo credit: )
With a dramatic upswing in suicides in its ranks, the general staff on Monday approved sweeping recommendations to reduce the number one cause of death in the IDF. So far this year, some 30 soldiers have committed suicide, but about half of these were in the past three months. In most cases, the IDF does not inform the public about suicides in it ranks. But the situation has so disturbed the IDF that on Monday the general staff held a special forum to discuss the inquiry into military suicides and approve steps to reduce the phenomenon. OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elezar Stern reviewed each of the 30 suicide cases in detail. He said suicide rates among IDF soldiers were similar to among corresponding aged youth in the Western world. However, he added that it was the army’s duty to halt all taking of life. But it was his chief staff officer, Brig.-Gen. Avi Zamir, who presented the forum with a host of recommendations that would help identify and treat potentially suicidal soldiers, and reduce chances they could take their own lives. At the current rate, a soldier kills themselves about every 10 days. The number is larger than those killed in military operations, training accidents and traffic accidents. According to military sources, four out of five soldiers who committed suicide had never been in contact with a mental health officer nor were they being treated in the civilian world. Most had been spur of the moment and used IDF-issued weapon. “There is a direct link between carrying weapons and suicides,” head of the army’s mental health department Col. Dr. Gadi Lubin was quoted as saying in the army weekly Bamachane. “We thought it was correct to reconsider issuing weapons during various periods of military service.” “We hope and believe that if a rifle is less available for soldiers the number of suicides will decrease,” he added. Last week, Deputy Chief of IDF General Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky signed orders barring recruits and some soldiers attending various courses from taking their weapons home on leave. The move was made to prevent theft, but also to make it more difficult for a soldier to commit suicide. This was one of the recommendations made by Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ika Abarvanel who investigated the case of the soldier Edan Natan Zada who gunned down four Israeli Arabs before being lynched in Shfaram in August. (Some recruits can receive special permission to carry their weapons home if they, for example, live in high-risk areas like Judea and Samaria.) The IDF is seen by some as a catalyst for suicides due to the difficult service, age of soldiers, the repeated potential for sensing failure and easy access to weapons. Others say the army experience actually diminishes the potential for suicide due to the unity within groups, personal fulfillment and improved ability to cope. This could explain the IDF statistics that show that more soldiers commit suicide at the beginning of their military service. About half of the annual suicides take place on Sundays, apparently because of the dramatic transformation between being at home and returning to the military framework. According to military sources, one-third of suicides during army service can be blamed on psycho-pathological reasons. The rest fall under a variety of reasons, like feelings of failure and problems in personal relationships. The army acknowledged that it has enormous difficulty in foreseeing suicide. Most of the recommendations approved by the general staff Monday dealt with identifying and treating those in distress. These include increasing the availability of mental health officers to include the public appeals (pniot hatzibur) desk and the Town Major’s (Katzin Ha’ir) office. Special lectures were also to be given to commanders to increase their awareness of soldiers in distress and how to deal with them. Also, soldiers will be given lectures on how to cope with stress and particularly seek professional help. Finally, the army has decided to disseminate the lessons from each of the suicides. Addressing the forum, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz noted that it was the military’s duty to do its utmost to prevent suicides. He noted that most suicides were due to personal problems and not related to military service. But that the army needed to stand by those in distress and give them professional help.