The Israel Defense Forces plans to make it harder for soldiers to be released from the army due to psychological distress, in an effort to reduce the number of people dropping out before completing their compulsory service.
Currently, one out of every six men drafted into the IDF drops out before completing his three-year term. As a result, a task force comprised of representatives from all the army’s main branches, along with the medical corps and the mental health unit, has decided to stiffen the criteria for release on psychological grounds.
A senior officer in the IDF manpower directorate said that almost 50 percent of soldiers who drop out of the army do so for psychological reasons. The remainder do so mainly due to either medical or disciplinary problems.
People with severe mental health problems are not drafted into the IDF to begin with. While army statistics don’t distinguish between mental health problems and other medical issues, in recent years about 7 percent of draft-age men, and 3 percent of draft-age women, have been exempted from army service on medical grounds. Recently, however, there has been a steady rise in the number of soldiers contacting the mental health unit during their service.
“Sick people need to get treatment, but if it’s possible to ensure ongoing treatment and support [the soldier] in remaining in his job, we’d prefer that to sending him home, including for combat soldiers,” the senior manpower directorate officer told Haaretz. “When a person leaves service early, that has many ramifications – both for him personally and from an economic standpoint, like the grant given to demobilized soldiers” who finish their service. “This doesn’t mean we’ll keep soldiers away from mental health officers, but the opposite: we’ll provide ongoing treatment that will support a functional return to service.”
About half of all soldiers who drop out do so during their first six months of service. The highest dropout rates are in rear-echelon units, the senior officer said.
As part of its effort to reduce dropout rates, the IDF has set itself new targets. It wants to achieve a dropout rate of less than 13.5 percent for men and 4.5 percent for women. The last time rates were anywhere near this level was six years ago, when the dropout rate for men was 13.9 percent. In 2013, dropout rates for men were around 16%, with the women's rate at 7.5%.
The manpower directorate also plans to rank the different units on their dropout rates, in a bid to encourage them to try and prevent dropouts.
The highest dropout rates are among soldiers from disadvantaged backgrounds and those of Ethiopian descent. In 2013, for instance, 22 percent of the Ethiopian soldiers drafted three years earlier had dropped out. Consequently, the army has created specific programs to try and reduce dropout rates among these two groups.
High dropout rates don’t only create military problems such as reducing the army’s available manpower. They also raise questions about the model of a “people’s army,” and the IDF’s current efforts to increase the proportion of draft-age youth who actually serve. Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, a former head of the manpower directorate, previously said that “the number of people we lose each year is disproportionate and doesn’t match our claims about being the people’s army.”
Currently, the IDF drafts some 1,200 people a year who have completed only 11 years of school or less, plus another 2,100 who are defined as at-risk youth. Army sources also noted that some draftees know very little Hebrew and have trouble reading and writing.
“We’re expanding the draft as much as possible and putting people into the ranks of the army who, for the most part, haven’t been in any framework whatsoever,” the senior manpower directorate officer told Haaretz.
The dropout task force discussed the question of whether the army has gone too far in trying to expand the draft. But the manpower directorate officer said the heads of the various units rejected that view, deeming the effort to integrate difficult draftees part of their responsibility as commanders.
Nevertheless, former mental health officers said they doubted if it was possible to reduce the number of soldiers dropping out due to psychological problems. Compared to other armies, they explained, the IDF exempts very few people from service on mental health grounds, so more people with potential problems enter the army to begin with.
“The psychological dropout rate from the IDF fell dramatically a few years ago, and some professionals even thought it fell dangerously,” said Col. (res.) Prof. Haim Knobler, a former head of the IDF’s mental health unit. “The numbers we’re hearing attest to a limited psychological dropout rate – much smaller than the norm in Western armies with compulsory service. I’m certain the IDF professionals know how to prevent the errors of drafting unsuitable people or retaining soldiers who aren’t fit for service.”
Knobler added that most of the people exempted from service or released early on psychological grounds don’t have real psychiatric problems, but their personality makes them unsuited to army life. “In most cases it’s what we used to call ‘an immature personality,’ and in other cases it’s problems with accepting authority,” Knobler explained. “Most of those released from the IDF on psychological grounds are still released for these reasons, so there’s no point in talking about psychological treatment for the soldiers that would allow them to remain in service in these cases.”
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