Suicide the number one cause of death in the IDF, report finds

Army says some soldiers refrain from divulging psychiatric background, making early detection a serious challenge

Soldiers place flags on graves at Mount Herzl Military cemetery in Jerusalem to mark Memorial Day in 2012. (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Soldiers place flags on graves at Mount Herzl Military cemetery in Jerusalem to mark Memorial Day in 2012. (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Despite a drop in the number of soldiers who take their own lives in recent years, a new report by the Movement for Freedom of Information reveals that suicide is still the number one cause of death in the Israeli Defense Forces, Maariv reported on Monday.

The report, based on research conducted by the government watchdog organization and data obtained from the military, said that in 2011, suicides made up 37 percent of total deaths by active soldiers, costing 21 lives. In comparison, 15 soldiers died in traffic accidents, 12 succumbed to diseases, six died in non-vehicular accidents and two were killed in combat operations.

Last week, the army released its figures on suicides in 2012, reporting that 14 soldiers took their own lives.

The Movement for Freedom of Information report also revealed that 67% of those who committed suicide during active service between 2009-2011 did not have known pre-existing psychiatric conditions, indicating that their military service may have been a significant factor in their decisions to take their own lives. Only 28% of the suicide cases between the years 2007-2011 saw an army psychiatrist before they killed themselves, the report found.

On Wednesday, the IDF released official numbers on suicides in the past decade, revealing that 237 servicemen and women took their own lives over the last 10 years.

The army’s numbers showed a steady decline in suicide cases over the past few years. Between 1991 and 1993 almost 39 soldiers committed suicide annually, the report said. The annual number dropped to 33 between 2000 and 2002, and stood at an average of “only” 23 deaths per year between 2009 and 2011.

A number of causes contributed to the decline in soldier suicides, the army said, noting the increase in army psychiatrists and the removal of guns from the hands of soldiers who didn’t need them in the line of duty.

The army refused the Movement for Freedom of Information’s request to divulge specifics on the units that the soldiers who killed themselves belonged to, citing privacy concerns, but said that of those who died in the last five years, 37 served in combat units, 22 served in combat support roles and 51 belonged to non-combat units.

The topic of military suicides made headlines in Israel in recent weeks after an anonymous blogger, calling himself Ishton, was called in for police questioning after he noted a discrepancy between the official number of new IDF casualties for 2011 (officially, 126 deaths at the time) and the smaller list of names, dates and stories on the Yizkor memorial website managed by the Defense Ministry. Among other conclusions, Ishton deduced that the military was concealing information from the public.

The post caused a public stir, and was apparently frowned upon by the army. Ishton was summoned for a police interrogation at which military investigators — who have no authority over him — were present, and was purportedly threatened with dire consequences if he continued to post in his blog and failed to reveal his sources.

Army sources said that the investigation against Ishton was launched because families of soldiers had said the blogger was staining the memory of their loved ones with false claims of suicide.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office issued the following statement in response to Maariv’s story: “The IDF considers suicide prevention vitally important. The number of suicide cases in the current year is the lowest in the past two decades. Seven years ago the IDF embarked on a program to reduce the number of suicides, which includes giving commanders the means to identify and deal with soldiers’ distress. The law stipulates that all recruits must divulge their medical information, including mental health treatments and past mental crises, before they enlist. Occasionally, due to fear of stigma or excessive motivation, the information isn’t reported by the recruits, their families or their doctors. In several past incidents, the army only learned of recurring outbreaks of mental illness after the suicide took place.”

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