Health Ministry to Probe Docs Prescribing Sex-urge Suppressants to Yeshiva Students

TV report sparks inquiry of psychiatrists but will likely lead nowhere, say officials; top psychiatrist slams superficial item 'on complex phenomenon'

General image of various kinds of drugs
Yves Herman / Reuters

The Health Ministry has launched an inquiry of four psychiatrists who have prescribed psychiatric drugs to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to suppress their sexual desire. The probe follows an investigative report that aired on Channel 12 TV's “Ulpan Shishi” news magazine over the weekend.

“The findings in the investigative report are worrisome,” a ministry source told Haaretz, adding that the psychiatrists are being contacted and asked to clarify the details and testimonies revealed by Channel 12 journalist Eli Hirschmann.

Hirschmann explained that the psychiatrists – Prof. Omer Bonne, of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, Prof. Avi Weizman of Tel Aviv University, Dr. Tali Vishne, of Bar-Ilan University, and American-born Dr. Michael Bontzel – prescribed the drugs to yeshiva students from various Hasidic sects.

The report described how they would give the young men, some of them minors, drugs including Risperdal, Seroxat, Prizma and other substances typically used to treat depression, eating disorders, ADHD, phobias, schizophrenia, etc. However, in these cases the psychiatrists apparently prescribed the drugs solely for their side effects, which include a reduced sexual desire.

For their part, sources in the health establishment and the psychiatric community believe that the Health Ministry inquiry will lead to nothing, not least because three of the four psychiatrists mentioned by Channel 12 have been the subject in the past of similar reports on the same issue, including some by Haaretz – and were even questioned by the ministry, which took no disciplinary or legal steps against them.

In an article appearing in 2012 in Haaretz, for example, Bonne insisted that he was guided solely by purely professional considerations when prescribing the drugs to the young men, and explained, "Some behaviors put the ultra-Orthodox in conflict with their values and cause them mental problems, even to the point of depression. And those urges, impulses or behaviors place them in conflict with their society, and then they become depressed."

At the same time, however, Health Ministry officials and the Israel Psychiatric Association were critical of Hirschmann's report. Association chairman Dr. Zvi Fishel, told Haaretz that “Giving psychiatric pills to reduce sexual desire is an invalid act in any case that does not involve sex crimes, and we vehemently oppose this.”

But Fishel added that, “an investigative report of a few minutes cannot reliably present a complex phenomenon. Since no one knows what really happened during the encounters described in the report, it’s not possible to judge the doctors and certainly not to criticize them.” He stressed that, “It would be terrible if this important report leads someone who is suffering emotional distress to become afraid and thus avoid seeking psychiatric treatment. Such a result could be destructive and even put lives at risk.”

The Health Ministry's response was: “Treatment that is not in accordance with medical guidelines is improper. The Health Ministry will check the claims made in the investigative report and if any defects in medical treatment are found, it will act to the full extent of the law.”