High Suicide Rate Among Immigrants to Israel, but No State Aid

More than a third of the people who committed suicide in Israel over the past decade were new immigrants; state refuses to allocate funding to the only crisis hotline that offers psychological assistance in different languages.

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Jewish immigrants from Ukraine land at Ben Gurion International airport on December 22, 2014.
An illustrative image showing Jewish immigrants from Ukraine arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport on December 22, 2014. Credit: AFP
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Over a third of the people who committed suicide in Israel in the past decade were new immigrants. The Eran organization, which operates a crisis hotline for psychological first aid, receives 18,000 calls a year from new immigrants in distress, about 1,000 of them suicidal.

Of the 4,806 people who took their own lives in the years 2000-2013, 1,658 were new immigrants. In 2003 alone, 117 new immigrants committed suicide, 100 of them from the former Soviet Union and 15 from Ethiopia.

Despite these figures, the state does not finance psychological aid for new immigrants. While the Immigration Absorption Ministry boasts of a record high immigration rate with the arrival of more than 30,000 new immigrants in 2015, none of them get psychological assistance.

The only assistance available to the new immigrants is the Eran crisis hotline, which doesn’t receive any state support and is reliant on contributions. The hotline provides a 24-hour-a-day service in Hebrew, Russian and Arabic and also has a service for Holocaust survivors.

Almost 78 percent (77.9) of the suicides among new immigrants were people who came from the former Soviet Union starting in 1990, according to Eran’s figures.

A considerable number of suicides – 16.6 percent – were immigrants who came from Ethiopia, starting in 1980.

In view of the statistics and the massive increase in immigration from France, Eran officials approached the Immigration Ministry a few months ago with a request to finance hotlines in Amharic and French.

But the ministry refused to allocate any money for the purpose, maintaining that the issue is not “a priority,” says Eran head David Koren.

Eran says it needs half-a-million shekels to operate lines in Amharic, Russian and French and to train some 500 volunteers. The majority of the NGO’s 10 million shekel annual budget comes from contributions, as well as hundreds of thousands of shekels earmarked by the Social Affairs Ministry for Holocaust survivors.

“It’s absurd that such a vital service doesn’t receive sufficient support from the state,” said Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee Chairman MK Avraham Nagosa after a visit to Eran last week.

“Beyond the general psychological distress that all people may suffer, new immigrants have unique problems like authority crisis, loneliness and livelihood difficulties,” he said.

MK Ksenia Svetlova said she was “shocked that such a critical service isn’t even on the cabinet ministries’ agenda. Immigration is a one-day thing, but absorption is for life,” she said.

After discussing the issue, the committee decided to hold a meeting with officials from the finance, health and absorption ministries to work out the allocation of funds to train Eran volunteers in the required languages.

“Until a decade ago, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry used to fund us, but they stopped. The immigrants are no longer immigrants, they told us, and they don’t need a hotline,” Koren says.

“According to all the studies and figures, immigrants run a greater risk of suffering a crisis, and this situation doesn’t end when their absorption money ends. Also, there are no lines in Amharic and French and not enough volunteers for the Russian language line,” Koren says.

“Sometimes a Russian-speaker calls and there’s no one to answer him and we look for volunteers who can call him back. Telling a person in crisis that someone will get back to him is not an ideal situation. By the time someone gets back to him, he may no longer want the aid,” Koren says.

Mira Keidar, director of social services in the Jewish Agency, says the state’s failure to help finance psychological aid for new immigrants is a grave omission. “My whole professional life I’ve dealt with immigrants and I’m very aware of the lack of services for them, all the more so these days with the increase of immigration from France and the psychological distress some immigrants develop,” she says.

“It’s critical that the person on the hotline speaks the caller’s language. We have no other help for them,” she says.

Many of the new immigrants who call the hotline are teenagers and young people who have trouble adjusting to life in Israel. Many of them are either serving in the army or about to join the service.

IDF figures show that no less than 37 percent of the soldiers who commit suicide are new immigrants.

For example, a young Russian-speaking immigrant who recently called the hotline said he had fears about joining the army and getting into a combat unit. “I’m enlisting in a month,” he said. “I asked to join a combat unit, Golani or paratroopers. Seven years in Israel haven’t made me completely Israeli but I want that to happen in the army. I hope in the army I’ll have more friends than now because in high school I didn’t have any,” he said.

A Russian-speaking female soldier told the hotline she feels she has nobody to talk to. “I came to Israel as a baby with a young mother of 20. A few years later, my mother met a drug addict felon, so most of my childhood years I spent Saturdays visiting prison and when he wasn’t there the police used to search my underwear drawer at 3 A.M.,” she says.

“It’s hard. I’m alone at home, sitting and crying almost all day,” a 16-year-old girl told the Eran hotline. “I see nothing positive in this life.” My mother was fired in December, she can’t find another job and I think she no longer gets welfare.”

Eran’s Dr. Shiri Daniels says that among immigrants from prosperous countries, like France, the psychological problems of callers have been marked by growing economic distress and alcohol addiction.

“A year-and-a-half or two years after the immigrant arrives, the psychological distress begins,” she says. “Before that, there’s excitement and the problems don’t come up. The immigrants suffer long-term difficulties involved with migration and integration.”

“The immigrant’s distress impacts their family members and environment, and requires support services that are accessible to deal with a social national problem,” she says.

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