Immigrants Make Up More Than One Third of All Suicides in Israel

Despite the statistics, many new Israelis cannot get psychological support in their own language.

First responders remove the body of one of the victims of Sunday's fire in Jerusalem, which is suspected of being a murder-suicide, January 1, 2017.
Emil Salman

Immigrants account for about a third of all suicides in Israel every year, but many still lack access to emotional assistance in their own language.

On Sunday, a woman and her four daughters were found dead in their Jerusalem apartment in what police suspect may be a murder-suicide. The family had immigrated from France a few years ago.

The circumstances in this case are still unclear, and it isn’t yet certain that the mother suffered from untreated depression or other psychological problems. What is clear is that many immigrants who do need psychological help don’t get it, leading to exceptionally high suicide rates.

From 2000 to 2013, 4,806 people committed suicide in Israel. Of these, 1,658 were immigrants – just over a third of the total.

These numbers led the cabinet to decide in 2013 that suicide prevention was a national interest. But in practice, psychological help for new immigrants is still frequently inadequate.

ERAN, an organization that runs a hotline for people in emotional distress, says it often can’t provide prompt assistance to French immigrants because it doesn’t have enough French-speaking volunteers to cover the high demand.

Moreover, the funding criteria which the Immigrant Absorption Ministry provided the organization in June explicitly state that emotional first aid for immigrants won’t be funded. “The purpose of the hotline is to provide information, advice, direction and support on issues that facilitate the immigrants’ absorption process (psychological support will not be given via this hotline),” the document says.

ERAN gets around 18,000 calls a year from immigrants, which constitute about 10 percent of the organization's total call volume. About seven percent of these callers express suicidal thoughts and are considered at risk.

“Immigrants are a risk group with regard to suicidal behavior,” said Dr. Shiri Daniels, ERAN’s director of professional services. “Phone and internet hotlines play an important and unique role in preventing suicides worldwide. In Israel, ERAN has set itself the goal of providing a solution for callers dealing with long-term problems related to migration and absorption in Israeli society via trained volunteers who speak their language, or else in Hebrew.”

Nevertheless, she said, there’s a shortage of French-speaking volunteers. If a French speaker calls and no French-speaking volunteer is available, the caller can leave a number for a volunteer to call back at a later time. But by then, the caller may no longer want to talk with anyone.

“To respond to the needs of the emotional distress in Israeli society, we need to train about another 500 volunteers in order to increase their availability at all hours of the day, and especially at night,” Daniels continued. “Unfortunately, we feel that the Absorption Ministry doesn’t view emotional support for immigrants as a high-priority goal.”

The mother suspected of killing her daughters and then committing suicide on Sunday was not being assisted by the welfare authorities, though she had contacted them three months ago to ask about baby-sitting help. For their part, the welfare services are understaffed and overburdened, with social workers collapsing under workloads that can reach 300 cases apiece. Consequently, a request like that wouldn’t normally lead to a home visit or a follow-up phone call.

The Absorption Ministry said its welfare service “does a great deal to help new immigrants with the absorption process and the problems likely to arise during it. Pursuant to a cabinet decision on immigration from France, funding was allocated for various programs meant to assist French immigrants with the absorption process, and also for the recruitment of French-speaking social workers.”

The ministry said in a statement that given the shortage of such workers, it has opened a course at Ashkelon Academic College where people who have worked in other professions could retrain to be social workers. In addition, it is trying to recruit people who aren’t social workers to serve as facilitators for immigrant families.

Finally, it said, the ministry’s social work department runs assistance programs in the four major cities that have absorbed the most French immigrants – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ashdod and Netanya. These programs address topics like parenting, transitioning between cultures, understanding the education system and youth programming.