50% Increase in Two Years: One Out of Eight Israeli Men Exempt From Army for Mental Health Issues

Israeli army attributes the spike to an increase in anxiety diagnoses in young people and a decreased motivation to serve

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israelis at an army enlistment center in Tel Hashomer, November 23, 2020.
Israelis at an army enlistment center in Tel Hashomer, November 23, 2020.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yeshuv
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A new record was set last year in the number of men in Israel who were exempted from conscription for reasons of mental health.

According to the Israel Defense Forces’ manpower directorate, 11.9 percent of draft-age men who were subject to conscription (that is, Jews and members of the Druze minority) last year received a mental health exemption.

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This represents an increase of around 50 percent in just two years, following a slower increase over the previous decade. In 2018, just 7.9 percent of draftees obtained a mental health exemption.

In contrast, the percentage of exemptions due to physical health problems has remained stable. Last year, it was 2.2 percent of male draftees, compared to 1.9 percent three years ago.

The army has for years been concerned about the rise in mental health exemptions. After last year’s rise was reported, it said the manpower directorate would make a concerted effort to stop this trend, in part by ordering mental health officers in recruitment centers to scrutinize exemption applications more thoroughly. But last year’s figures show the effort hasn’t yet borne fruit.

Israeli soldiers on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip August 21, 2020.Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Alongside the steady rise in the number of Haredi yeshiva students who are exempted from service to continue full-time yeshiva study – 15.9 percent of all male draftees last year – the rise in mental health exemptions has become a major problem the army must address.

Some of the people receiving mental health exemptions are Haredi men who are not enrolled in full-time religious studies, but the majority are secular. This was evident from the fact that the rate of mental health exemptions in Jerusalem was no higher than in other areas, even though the capital has a much higher Haredi population.

The Israeli army attributes the rise mainly to a problem common to all Western countries – a rise in the number of young men suffering from depression or anxiety. But another factor appears to be a decline in the value of military service in the eyes of large segments of Israeli society over the past two decades.

The stigma that a mental health exemption once carried has largely evaporated, and today, recipients rarely have trouble integrating into either society or the job market.

The army consequently suspects that a large proportion of mental health exemptions are a form of draft-dodging rather than being psychiatrically justified.

Initial data on the next round of draftees indicates that the rate of mental health exemptions might rise by another percentage point. The problem could even accelerate due to the economic, social and emotional problems caused by the coronavirus crisis.

When the country is focused on socioeconomic rather than military issues, motivation for army service in general, and for combat service in particular, tends to decline.

The ongoing rise in the number of Haredi yeshiva students receiving exemptions also helps legitimatize draft-dodging in other communities, officers said.

In the past, the army has complained about an “industry” of psychiatrists who were quick to approve mental health exemptions.

The IDF is considering various ideas for reducing the rate of mental health exemptions. Other than allowing a more thorough scrutiny of applications, the idea of granting full exemptions to everyone who receives a profile of 21 (out of 100) for mental health reasons is considered by the army.

In many cases, the exemption is given on the grounds that the draftee isn’t psychologically fit to carry weapons or sleep on base.

But the army is considering redefining several hundred rear-echelon jobs as not requiring soldiers to carry weapons or stay on base overnight, thereby reducing the number of exemptions. This would require it to drop its current practice of requiring almost all draftees to receive basic weapons training.

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