The Israeli army, which saw three infantrymen commit suicide shortly after fighting in Gaza, has found PTSD-related symptoms in several hundred soldiers, an IDF officer indicated.
The officer, Col. Dr. Keren Ginat, the head of the army’s mental health branch, told a Knesset oversight committee on Monday that the army had contacted 1,000 soldiers known to have been wounded in combat or involved in intense firefights and invited them to come in and talk about their experiences and feelings. Some 70 percent agreed, and of those, she said, roughly 70 percent – all of whom “had a high PCL,” or PTSD Check List – were referred for additional treatment.
Frequently, she said, the symptoms subside with time.
Although the army has been criticized for not extending more mental health help faster, the Knesset’s IDF Manpower Subcommittee, which is evaluating the army’s actions during Operation Protective Edge, praised the army’s efforts to minimize PTSD during and after the 50-day operation.
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee head MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) said all present were “impressed” with the “innovative” work the army had done.
According to Ginat, a psychiatrist, most of the troops that entered Gaza were given an eight-hour Magen course, which she described as a sort of “first aid for mental health.”
The course, designed with the army by Dr. Moshe Farchi, the head of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Studies Department at Tel-Hai College, taught soldiers to recognize signs of PTSD and gave them tools to engage their fellow soldiers in the field. Within several minutes, she said, the soldiers should be able to draw their peers away from the brink and back toward combat competence.
The worst thing to do, she said, would be to swoop in and extract a soldier from the theater of operations at the first sign of PTSD-related symptoms. She likened such a scenario to “pressing pause” during a horror movie just when the villain has raised the knife and is advancing toward the shower curtain.
Stressing that the mental health department of the army operates solely with the individual soldier’s best interests in mind, she said that it is important for a soldier to feel that he or she went through a rough patch but recuperated after several moments. “We want him to feel he made it out a hero,” she said.
The still unanswered question, she maintained, is what is the optimal amount of time to wait before engaging a soldier suffering from PTSD-like symptoms.
Currently, the army has drafted all of its mental health professionals and is in the middle of a two-week process of screening and treating both enlisted and reserves soldiers.
The army, she asserted, has passed word down the chain of command, “to the level of squad leader” that those in need, or those aware of someone else in need, can receive immediate help.
MK Ofer Shelach (Yesh Atid), who was not present at the meeting, left a note for Ginat in which he asserted that his son, who served in an elite company in the Paratroopers Brigade, one which saw intensive combat, was not contacted by any mental health official.
University of Haifa professor of sociology Oz Almog made a similar assertion immediately after the war. On August 19, he wrote on his Facebook page that he had recently met with a young officer, in charge of evacuating wounded soldiers from the field of battle, who had taken his soldiers to a non-profit organization for a two-day seminar, a sort of mental health detox, in lieu of any formal army assistance. Almog called the lack of immediate assistance “criminal negligence.”
In August and September, perhaps as a result of the stress of combat, three soldiers who saw combat in Gaza, all with the Givati Brigade, took their own lives.
The army, Ginat said, cannot be certain that those suicides are directly related to combat experiences, but she added that “we are treating it as though it is connected to the operation.”
(Those in need of assistance, or those who know others in need, were told they can call the army’s mental health services at 03-737-7007.)