MKs convene to examine suicide rates

400 people commit suicide in Israel annually, close to number of road deaths.

ivan window 298ap (photo credit: AP)
ivan window 298ap
(photo credit: AP)
Israel needs a national body to address the problem of suicide, just as one exists to combat road accidents, Meretz MK Ran Cohen said Wednesday, as five Knesset committees convened to examine for the first time one of Israel's leading - but least talked-about - causes of death. Cohen, who is chairman of the Knesset's Lobby for the Struggle Against Suicide and pushed five major Knesset committees to focus on this topic for World Mental Health Day, told The Jerusalem Post that Wednesday's meeting was "historic." "Since the Knesset was first established, there has never been a hearing looking at the problem of suicide in Israel," he said, adding that as part of his awareness campaign he has also been pushing the Health Ministry to allocate a budget to set up a national organization dedicated to suicide prevention. According to Cohen, more than 400 people commit suicide in Israel annually, nearly as many as die in traffic accidents. That does not include the thousands of others who try to end their lives but do not succeed. Suicide is a "national epidemic, but it is a quiet epidemic," added Anat Goldstein of the Joint Distribution Committee. "There must be a coordinating body with a regular budget to reduce the suicide rate...It [has been] done abroad successfully. In Scotland, [suicides] were cut by 20% and in the US by more than 10%." Of the 400 annual suicide victims, a quarter are under the age of 24, Goldstein said. In addition, there are 4,000 reported cases of people who harm themselves and an estimated 25,000 unreported cases. Dr. Yifat Cohen, a pediatric psychiatrist at the Health Ministry, said it was difficult to cope with the problem when a single authority is unavailable to coordinate data on suicide among young people. Even when high-risk people are identified, she explained, the wait for treatment in mental health centers is too long. Among the at-risk groups for suicide are victims of rape and sexual abuse, alcoholics, and drug abusers. In addition, one third of all suicide attempts in Israel are committed by members of the gay and lesbian community, according to information presented to the Knesset Committee for Labor, Welfare and Health, chaired by MK Moshe Sharoni (Gil). The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, meanwhile, looked at the suicide rate among IDF soldiers, which so far this year stands at five. Ran Cohen, however, commended the efforts made in recent years by former IDF chief of General Staff Dan Halutz to tackle suicide among soldiers. The MK said that while 36 soldiers had committed suicide in 2005, in 2006 the number had dropped to 27. "If an organization deals with the problem then there is no doubt it can be reduced," Cohen added. The Immigration Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee discovered that 21 immigrant youths, mostly from the former Soviet Union, committed suicide in 2006. The subject of suicides was also discussed in the Knesset plenum Wednesday and Cohen told the Post that he was optimistic that both the Health Ministry and the Finance Ministry would support a budget for a national organization to fight what he called "a plague on our country, a huge humanitarian plague that is surrounded by silence." The Internal Security Ministry has already taken steps to address the problem of suicide. The ministry reports that 1,200 police officers have been trained to lecture in schools on suicide prevention, and the ministry is cooperating with voluntary organizations to offer immediate help when someone threatens suicide.