Education Min. to Take Hands-on Approach to Tackling Youth Suicide

The "national plan for preventing suicide" will soon be launched as a pilot program in three communities in Israel. The Education Ministry program will include special training for school faculty for preventing suicide, as well as workshops for parents.

A central component of the plan will be focused activity in schools, a significant change from the ministry's previous hands-off approach to dealing with suicidal children and youth. Yochi Siman Tov, head of emergency programs at Shefi, the Education Ministry's psychological counseling service, said that an average of 10 Israeli school-aged students committed suicide annually in recent years.

Investigative commissions set up within the ministry after each of these suicides have discovered that absence from school is a prime signal for the student being at risk. The commissions found that around a third of the students who committed suicide were either new immigrants or the children of immigrants. The panels also discovered that many youths view telling an adult about a suicidal friend as "squealing," and that some students do not treat their friends' repeated statements of their own insignificance or thoughts of death with the necessary seriousness.

The annual report of the National Council for the Child indicated that in 2007, emergency rooms across the country admitted 685 children and youth following suicide attempts, three-quarters of whom were female. In 1999, only 469 such cases were reported. Most of the suicide attempts were made by teenagers aged 15 to 17, but 198 of them were by children aged 10 to 14. Seven suicide attempts were registered by children younger than nine. The Education Ministry indicated that according to experts' estimates, at least ten suicide attempts go unreported annually.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in Israel (after traffic accidents) among males aged 15 to 24, and the third-leading cause among similarly-aged females.

Shefi listed a series of distress signs to aid teaching staff identify potentially suicidal students. These include absence from school, "perfectionism and exaggerated responses to failure," a sharp drop in academic performance, a rise in incidents of bodily harm, dangerous behavior (such as drug and alcohol use, gambling and erratic driving), and repeated statements about the meaninglessness of life.

Siman Tov said a student's sexual orientation is an additional sign of danger. Expressions of suicidal tendencies, she said, were found more "among people of homosexual orientation, or those who experience problems with their sexual identities."

Other signals include bullying at school, trouble in romantic relationships, and physical or sexual exploitation. "Our message to teachers it to pay attention to all of these sources of risk, and if more than one of them appear together - even though the student appears to continue functioning - the teaching staff must remain alert and know that the child needs more support," Siman Tov said.

Ramle, Rehovot and Kafr Kana were chosen for the pilot program's first run, immediately after the resumption of classes after the upcoming High Holy Days. A pamphlet distributed to parents in these communities reads, "Not every adolescent who is sad or even miserable will try to commit suicide. Depressed youth and those at risk speak of issues of life and death, and of their own death - and some even try to do so... It is important to treat the issue of stress seriously, to prepare for real risk, and not to deny or dismiss the teenager's suicidal thoughts."