Israel Sees Dramatic Spike in Suicide Attempts by Children Under Age 14

Phenomenon is part of a global trend whereby suicidal thoughts are surfacing at a younger age, says senior psychologist

A student walks the halls in a school in Tel Aviv.
David Bachar

Thirty-one Israeli children under the age of 9 tried to commit suicide last year, according to the Israel National Council for the Child association. This is part of broader phenomenon among young children, which is of growing concern in recent years among professionals in the field in Israel and around the world.

“This is a worldwide trend, the age of suicidal ideation is becoming younger,” said Dr. Shai Hen-Gal, chief psychologist of the Telem nonprofit that provides treatment for children and adolescents in Israel. “In the past, they said there were no suicidal thoughts among children under age 13, but we see it happening at age 10 and younger.”

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Until recently, such cases were not even recorded but over the past decade the situation has changed. In 2017, 323 cases of attempted suicide were recorded for Israeli youngsters under age 14, a rise of 30 percent compared to 2007, when only 223 children in the same age range attempted suicide. Also last year, hospital emergency rooms admitted 861 youths up to age 17 who had made suicide attempts, 648 of them girls. This is the highest number reported in at least 15 years.

Most of the cases in question are accompanied by signs of distress, such as depression and suicidal thoughts, but professionals say many potential suicides still remain under the radar. Parents, teachers and therapists find it difficult to grasp the fact that young children may actually commit suicide, partly because their ability to express emotions is different from that of more mature teenagers. It is hard to find any up-to-date information concerning child suicide in Health Ministry records.

“Until recently, the accepted view was that there were no suicides at such a young age, that suicidal ideation with a background of depression and sometimes with outbreaks of various psychological disturbances, comes only at the age of adolescence. But in recent years we are seeing that this is changing,” said Prof. Gil Zalsman, director of the Geha Psychiatric Hospital in Petah Tikva and chairman of the National Council for the Prevention of Suicide.

It is not just a matter of dry numbers, he continued, "it is something that is being felt in the field too. We are receiving reports and requests from teachers that are showing a drop in the age of manifestations of suicidal thoughts, while in the background, too, there has been an increase in the psychiatric hospitalization of children.”

>> Read more: Israel's Education Ministry Halts Suicide-prevention Program Over Budget Spat

Zalsman added that an outpatient clinic for treating suicidal tendencies and depression among children aged 7 to 12 is scheduled to open at Geha hospital soon.

The number of suicides among adolescents aged 15 and up has actually decreased in the country in the past decade, but where younger children are concerned, the trend is moving in the opposite direction – and there are many explanations being offered for this, said Hen-Gal.

“Some people talk about the issue of loneliness, the influence of screens [computer and other], a lack of encouragement to express distress and a lack of availability of parents due to time constraints,” he said. “We are seeing more depression and suicidal thoughts among younger children, but the parents – and to tell the truth the professionals, too – still do not know how to deal with this. This is an area that is still not developed enough."

The Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee met Monday to discuss suicide prevention in the school system, after a report in Haaretz revealed that the national suicide prevention program is in danger of being shut down because of a lack of funds. Even after the meeting ended – and despite pressure from MKs and families – the Health Ministry, which underwrites the initiative, was reluctant to commit to continuing the project in the coming year.

Attorney Vered Windman from the Israeli Council for the Child said that "distress among minors deepens and widens in general, and it seems it begins at a younger age." According to Windman, "childhood grows shorter as a result of the children's increased exposure to content which is not age-defined and of the growing gap between the accelerated physical development and the development of mental maturity – and [as a result of] the challenges brought to children by the current technological era."

Windman added: "The data showing a decrease in children who were suicidal reflects a decade-long trend that requires a systematic action and a different way of treating it than the one we are used to today." This includes, she said, "developing preventive programs for children at the age of elementary school as well, not just for teens in high-school age."