Israel's Education Ministry Halts Suicide-prevention Program Over Budget Spat

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A high school in Tel Aviv
A high school in Tel AvivCredit: Ofer Vaknin

The Education Ministry is suspending a suicide-prevention program at Israel's schools because, it says, the Health Ministry didn't give it the promised funding for the program this year. As a result, training programs for psychologists and advisers at the schools, and evaluation and treatment of pupils at risk, have been suspended.

From 2015 through 2017, the Health Ministry budgeted 6 million shekels a year to the program. But in 2018, the Education Ministry says it has had to finance it alone, from its own resources.

The program to prevent suicide among high-school students began in 2015, and was available in 84 communities. It included training professionals to evaluate and treat teenagers at risk of suicide. During those three years, around 4,700 cases were sent for consutation with the educational psychology service and 2,700 teens underwent risk assessment. About 800 at-risk teens received psychological treatment.

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The project also includes developing, running and assessing other suicide-prevention programs, and aid for people who themselves deal with suicide threats and attempts.

The National Program for the Prevention of Suicidality and Suicide is a Health Ministry initiative, which it formulated in 2014 based on a cabinet resolution. However, it has been criticized for delays in implementation and for the poor cooperation between the ministry staff and the National Council for the Prevention of Suicide.

The national program for suicide prevention was inaugurated in late 2013 with a budget of 55 million shekels (including for schools) to be spent over three years. The Health Ministry set up a unit to address suicide prevention, which advises the national suicide prevention council on policy and implementation.

In fact, for 2018 the Finance Ministry allocated 18 million shekels to the Health Ministry for the national suicide-prevention program, including at schools. The Health Ministry did use 10 million of that money, but what happened to the other 8 million remains unclear. It gave none at all to the Education Ministry, which as said had to fund the program alone, and says it cannot do so any more.

One thing that has proven effective at preventing suicide is continuity in treatment, not passing the person at risk from one office to another. This however may involve complicated coordination between multiple bodies, including the police, the army, hotlines, welfare authorities, the education and absorption and health ministries, healthcare funds, national insurance, the local authority, parents, and more.

This aspect of therapy, contunuity, was supposed to be addressed in 2018 with the establishment in March of an external organization, Amal, that ws supposed to serve as an arm of the Health Ministry. Amal's missions include integrating this concept of therapy contunuity in local governments, state organizations and other facilities.

Amal was also supposed to address the issue of training personnel, and alone to receive a budget of 5 million shekels for the year. Yet the Health Ministry has not signed a final binding agreement with it, to this day, and Haaretz has learned that Amal - which meanwhile hired people - is planning to sue.

A source in the national suicide-prevention council charges that the Health Ministry has been deliberately dragging its feet on instituting continuity in suicide prevention treatment for two years now. It's also sitting on a joint project with the police to share information and set up a suicide-prevention unit, at a cost of 2 million shekels a year, says the source.

The Health Ministry said it is examining the matter as part of broader evaluation of its own budget, along with an evaluation of the program itself.

The Education Ministry clarified that the minute it receives the budget from the Health Ministry, it will resume the program.

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