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Virus crisis drives 41% rise in number of at-risk youth seeking help

Elem, an aid welfare group, finds emotional and physical suffering, drug and alcohol use, have risen sharply compared to last year, accelerated further in recent months

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

A teenager search for cans through a garbage container in the center of Jerusalem on July 13,2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A teenager search for cans through a garbage container in the center of Jerusalem on July 13,2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

There has been a sharp increase in substance abuse, emotional distress, and violence among at-risk youths during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, according to a report published Sunday by the Elem group, a nonprofit welfare organization.

During September-November, Elem said it had been contacted by 6,517 youths, an increase of 41% over the same period in 2019.

Depression, anxiety, self-harm, violence, and alcohol and drug abuse all increased compared to the year before, according to Nava Barak, ex-wife of Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud, and president of the Elem organization, which operates dozens of centers for at-risk youth across the country.

“This was a particularly hard year,” Barak said. “The hardships of at-risk youth worsened. The circle of danger expanded and in recent months we are meeting more boys and girls who are deteriorating because of the coronavirus crisis.”

Nava Barak in Tel Aviv, December 22, 2010. (Matanya Tausig/FLASH90)

Emotional pressures and the lack of a regular social life brought an increase in substance abuse, with
2,478 of those being cared for by Elem reporting that they drink alcohol. That number was 2.6 times higher than in the same period last year, and 1.4 times the figure for the previous three months.

In addition, 1,989 said they are using drugs, 2.7 times the figure in 2019 and 1.5 times the number in June-August.

Reports of self-harm went up to 426, 1.8 times higher than the year before, and the number of eating disorders doubled.

There were 4.8 times as many incidents of violence outside of school premises as there were in the same period the year before, and 1.6 times as many compared to the previous three months. Violence in schools nearly tripled compared to 2019.

In total, Elem heard of 1,838 incidents of sexual, emotional or verbal violence during the review period.

Sexual assault is climbing and there were 3.3 times as many incidents as the same period in 2019, and 1.5 times the previous three months, Elem reported. Online assaults increased by 2.5 compared to the year before.

The financial impact of the crisis, which has driven up unemployment as businesses collapsed due to lockdown restrictions, led to 13% saying they had experienced hunger due to their family’s economic situation.

Among those who contacted the welfare group, 2,272 reported feeling depressed or anxious, 4.4 times the number for the same period in 2019, and 1.4 times the rate for June, July and August.

Feelings of loneliness were also up, with 1,495 of the children saying they felt that way, 2.5 times the number who said they felt alone in 2019.

Illustrative: A young Israeli smokes marijuana in Jerusalem, on April 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The stress was also driving some to leave formal education, and 16% of those who approached the organization had dropped out of the education system. Among ultra-Orthodox youths, the figure jumped to 26% who had left yeshivas or community or other education frameworks.

“Today, everybody’s children are in danger,” Barak warned. “We must act for them, and increase activities in the field.”

Elem CEO Inbal Dor Kerbel warned that the younger generation “will continue for many more years to deal with the consequences of the dramatic risk situations they have encountered in the coronavirus [pandemic].”

The report came as Israel was set to enter its third national lockdown since the start of the virus outbreak earlier this year. As part of the restrictions on the education system, 5th to 10 graders will be taught by distance learning, remaining at home rather than going into schools.

Welfare groups have repeatedly warned that lockdown measures, added to the stress of financial difficulties, are driving up incidents of domestic violence.

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