Study: Hundreds of Teen Suicide Attempts in Israel Go Unreported

Attempted suicide among Israeli teenagers is much more common than is reported, according to a study of more than 1,000 Jewish and Arab teens.

Dan Even
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Dan Even

Israeli teenagers attempt suicide far more often than is reported, according to the preliminary results of a study of more than 1,000 Jewish and Arab teens.

The lead researcher was Dr. Hanna Bar Joseph, a psychologist who is a member of the interministerial Youth Suicide Prevention Committee.

The study examined the scope of undocumented suicide attempts among several groups of teenagers: residents of the central-Israel cities of Ramle and Rehovot participating in a Health Ministry pilot suicide-prevention program; residents of the northern-Israel Arab community of Kafr Kana; teens who are attending government boarding schools after being removed from their homes; and among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens.

The 1,134 respondents (637 Jews and 497 Arabs) filled out questionnaires based on one used in a similar European study as well as ones developed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The rate of attempted suicide reported by the Jewish respondents were 20 times that of the number reported by hospital emergency rooms, while for the Arab participants this rate was 74 times the reported rate. The researchers noted that this finding cannot be considered representative because all of the subjects were from a single community.

Dr. Yaacov Ezrahi of the Mertens Hoffman Research Institute participated in the study, whose findings were presented yesterday at the 14th European Symposium of Suicide and Suicidal Behavior in Tel Aviv.

Official Health Ministry put the total number of suicide attempts in Israel at around 5,000 a year, for all ages. According to the data for 2006-2009, the rate of teen suicide attempts is 0.17 percent, or 178 teens for every 100,000 teenagers.

"We are still trying to estimate the extent of the phenomenon," Bar Joseph says. "This represents a lot of teenagers the establishment is not aware of. As we feared, we're talking about a frightening situation that requires attention, and it's important that it leads to intervention."

Bar Joseph says her team's findings correspond to those from similar surveys in Western countries. In a survey conducted in Oxford, England, 1 percent of teens reported having attempted suicide, while a survey from Marseilles, France yielded a rate of 2 percent.

Of the Israeli study participants who were defined as being in distress and who were known to welfare authorities, 18.5 percent reported having attempted suicide. The percentage was similar for the teens who had been removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools. One out of every four girls in the two boarding schools included in the study reported having attempted suicide.

Of the 55 teenagers in the study who self-identified as LGBT, 20 percent reported attempting suicide, 112 times the rate reported by emergency rooms.

"This is a group that isn't getting enough attention," Bar Joseph said, adding that the rate of attempted suicides is higher among LGBT youth who are religiously observant because they "have a much harder time with their families."

According to the Center for Disease Control in the United State, most teen suicide attempts are an expression of serious emotional distress and "not a harmless means of getting attention, as the public, as well as many professionals, often assume," Bar Joseph stressed. She said that other groups, including teenage victims of abuse and ultra-Orthodox teens, should also be studied.

"The State of Israel is obligated to know what's happening in this realm so it can work to improve the situation," Bar-Joseph said.

Israeli teens in Jerusalem's Zion Square. Credit: Emil Salman