Soldiers’ Visits to Mental Health Offices Jump 40 Percent Since 2010

Military sources underline 'drastic' increase, with 44,000 soldiers seeking mental health appointments in 2017

File photo: An Israeli soldier in the Jordan Valley in 2014.
RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS

Since 2010, there has been a 40 percent increase in the number of consultations that soldiers in compulsory service have held with army mental health officers. Sources in the Israel Defense Forces mental health service termed the increase “drastic” and that it is wearing down the therapists and their ability to respond properly.

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The data was published recently by Lt. Col. Dr. Leah Shelef, head of the Israel Air Force’s psychological branch, as part of an article she wrote for the journal Maarachot that dealt with soldier violence against IDF medical staffers.

The data show that some 44,000 soldiers in all the commands and branches of the IDF sought an appointment with their unit’s mental health officer in 2017, compared to 39,400 in 2013. The state comptroller’s report of last year that examined the army’s mental health system stated that between January 2015 and April 2016 there were some 16,000 meetings between combat soldiers and mental health officers (many soldiers met more than once with the relevant professionals).

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Linked to the increase in mental health appointments is the larger number of soldiers who drop out of service on mental health grounds before their official discharge date. In 2015 the IDF decided to deal with the issue and launched a broad plan to reduce the number of army dropouts for mental health reason. At that point they set a goal of reducing the number of male dropouts, which stood at 13.5 percent, and female dropouts, which was 4.5 percent, yet the phenomenon is still growing. Although army statistics show a decrease in dropouts for all reasons, dropouts for mental and emotional reasons are still growing in such a worrisome fashion that the army’s mental health system is starting to consider the effect this is having on the therapists.

According to statistics released recently to the Movement for Freedom of Information, in 2017 some 4,500 conscripts dropped out in 2017 for mental health reasons, compared to 4,190 in 2016, and 4,125 in 2013, a gradual increase of 15 percent since 2013. The leading consumers of mental health services are soldiers from the IDF ground forces, which is responsible for the army’s special units and the leading combat brigades.

Shelef attributes the sharp rise in mental health consultations partly to the “harsh socioeconomic background of large sections of the population, coupled with a reduced motivation to serve, the desire to earn money and to use the time for the soldiers’ personal needs.” She adds, “The drastic increase naturally intensifies burnout among the therapists, and this burnout is liable to reduce their ability to be understanding and increase the likelihood of an aggressive response” by the soldiers against the therapists.

IDF medical sources argue that the increase in the number of mental health consultations comes from the number of mental health officers in the various units and brigades, which has increased substantially in recent years. They say that today, any soldier in a frontline unit who wants to see a mental health officer has one accessible in his brigade. In May 2017 the State Comptroller’s Office issued a report that raised problems in the army health system, particularly with regard to mental health. The report cited lengthy waits for an appointment; more than 16 percent of soldiers in field units who had asked for a mental health consultation had to wait more than four weeks for treatment. The report also said that the supervision of IDF psychiatrists was deficient.

The IDF spokesperson said in response that the army’s “health system, including the mental health area, works during routine times and emergencies to preserve the health of those who serve. In recent years awareness of and access to mental health services has increased and the number of mental health officers has grown,” and that the system “works to increase commanders’ awareness of the need to assist soldiers in various situations,” and to “provide speedy and comprehensive healthcare.”