Despite tragic setbacks, army is lowering suicide rate within its ranks

While Corporal Netta Brand was found dead Thursday, apparently by his own hand, the army has had much success reducing such cases

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

.Soldiers carrying the body of a soldier who committed suicide at a stalactite cave near Beit Shemesh in March 2011 (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/ Flash 90)
.Soldiers carrying the body of a soldier who committed suicide at a stalactite cave near Beit Shemesh in March 2011 (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/ Flash 90)

Early Thursday morning, IDF personnel found Corp. Netta Brand on a forest floor, several miles from his home, in uniform, dead. His apparent suicide, with his service weapon, was a rare failure in the IDF’s mostly successful battle to confront, and stop, suicides among its ranks

Although suicide in uniform remains the single highest cause of death among IDF soldiers during non-wartime periods, the army has reduced the rate of suicides by thirty percent over the past three years, according to Path to Life, a non-profit organization that works closely with the army in educating soldiers and officers about the risk of suicide.

Dr. Avshalom Aderet, a father who lost his son to a suicide while in uniform back in 1997 and a board member of Path to Life, said that the army must deal with young people who have deadly weapons at their disposal and are put into “an institutionally rigid organization.”

This last factor can drive soldiers to despair, and to take their own lives. What he calls “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Nonetheless, Aderet said, “the army far outshines all other major civilian organizations”, including the ministry of education, in addressing the risk of suicide.

“The key to the army’s success has been its openness, [its willingness] to talk about it,” he said. “If you don’t talk about it, that’s when you have a problem.”

Aderet is all too familiar with army suicides. His own son, Eran, was a “sensitive”, “introverted” young man who upon entry into the army received a posting that he did not want. Faced with jail or compliance, he saw no way out and took his own life.

Israeli soldiers mourning the death of 22-year-old soldier Moshe Naftali in August, 2011. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash90)
Israeli soldiers mourning the death of a comrade in 2011. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash90)

Rather than be reactive, the army has made moves to prevent potential suicides as early as possible. The IDF has instructed all unit commanders to conduct regular interviews with soldiers and to immediately speak with any soldier returning from a long leave.

Furthermore, the “availability of arms,” an IDF spokesperson said, represents an all-too-convenient solution to soldiers in distress and has therefore prompted the IDF to “significantly reduce the number of career and enlisted soldiers who are allowed to bear arms.” And once every three months mental health officers review the data of army suicides and pass their interpretation of the factors that led to the death on to the relevant officers.

The army, mostly through the Education Corps, also has regular seminars on suicide. Soldiers are told to look for telltale signs such as lack of appetite, energy and hope; changes in behavior and sleep; talk of death and the bestowal of treasured items to others. They are told about the organization’s hotline [03 964-0222] and of their right to request to see a mental health officer at any time.

Finally, the nature of the act itself is discussed: the one million people who commit suicide around the world each year, Aderet tells soldiers, do so as a result of anguish and suffering, as a means of ending torment, not as a cry for attention or for any other reason.

Each of the 20- 25 suicides a year in the IDF are not only investigated by the Military Police, which look into every non-combat death, but also by a panel of experts under the auspices of the Manpower Branch, who review the soldier’s file and see whether the death could have been avoided.

One matter they look into is whether the dead soldier threatened suicide in the past. In a wholly hierarchal institution, where orders are handed down and are supposed to be followed without question, soldiers can, and frequently do, talk about taking their own lives as an alternative to outright non-compliance with an order, leaving officers unsure of the validity of a threat.

In the past the sincerity of these threats was left to a soldier’s commanding officer; today, Aderet said, there is a set protocol that mandates that every such threat be taken seriously – soldiers are put under 24-hour watch, stripped of their weapons and brought to a mental health officer as soon as possible.

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