In the last 10 years, 237 soldiers killed themselves, according to official statistics released by the Israel Defense Forces. That works out to an average of 24 conscripts taking their own lives each year.
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The suicide rate has been declining for the past few years, and that the same is expected to be true this year, an army source said on Wednesda.
Nevertheless, there have been fluctuations. In 2005, 36 soldiers committed suicide, but the rate has declined ever since. In 2009, 21 cut short their lives, while the number rose to 27 in 2010, but dropped again the following year. In contrast, an average of 40 soldiers killed themselves each year between 1990 and 2000.
The relative drop over the past decade can be attributed to several actions taken by the IDF: appointment of more mental health officers and psychiatrists (today, for example, there is a psychiatrist assigned to every IDF division); increased control over the distribution of firearms to young soldiers; abd greater involvement on the part of commanders in an attempt to head off suicides.
Release of the official data comes in the wake of information about suicides in the IDF first published by an anonymous blogger, known as “Eishton,” who was subsequently investigated by Israel Police and the Military Police. The blogger found a significant disparity between the official casualty statistics published by the various security forces, and the number of “remembrance” pages on the official commemoration website, “Yizkor”. The blogger concluded that the actual number of suicides was much higher than the official statistics show.
This is not the first time suicides in the IDF have made headlines; in 2003, the Maariv newspaper published an article claiming that suicides had become the number one cause of death in the military, after a report prepared in the defense ministry noted that 43 soldiers had killed themselves that year, more than the number of soldiers killed in action. Actually, according to the data released today by the IDF, 37 soldiers committed suicide in 2003.
The reason for the discrepancy apparently lies in the manner in which a death is described. On more than one occasion, families have applied pressure to avoid having the deaths of their loved ones categorized as suicides; as a result, a more delicate label is sometimes used, namely “suspected suicide.” A source within the IDF explained that this is why the army avoids publishing exact data, including the circumstances of each soldier’s death.
Professor Avi Bleich, who served as head of the army’s mental health division in the early 1990s, and currently manages the Lev Hasharon Hospital, says that “surveys taken over the years revealed that the phenomenon was characterized by waves, without any particular rule. Our conclusion was that the rate of suicides in the army was no higher than those of other Western armed forces. One could also say that the dangerous environment − the level of pressure and available firearms − is the critical factor.”
A former investigator with the military police said in a conversation with Haaretz that almost all non-combat deaths were suicides, and that “the writing was on the wall.” That is, in almost every instance, after taking testimony and inspecting the base, it was clear that the suicide had come as no surprise. “There were
instances where I was convinced that the issues that led to the act could have been dealt with beforehand,” she said.
Another senior psychiatrist who once served as the head of the army’s mental health division, says that the decline in suicide statistics beginning in 2006 is due to a change in the number of soldiers authorized to carry weapons during their training period, and also due to the availability of a hotline, which provides “neutral” assistance to soldiers in crisis.
There is a significant difference in the profile of an army “suicide,” as opposed to other suicide victims. While most suicides in the general population are by clinically depressed individuals, most soldiers who commit suicide are physically and mentally healthy people who suffer an acute life crisis, according to the psychiatrist.
“Every instance of suspected suicide in the IDF is reported,” says the psychiatrist, contrasting this with “civilian cases, where at least half of the cases go unreported as suicides. Still, in the army there are relatively more suicides due to the presence of personal firearms. If they remove that, there will definitely be fewer suicides.”