The medical and economic cataclysms caused by COVID-19 are vast, but the psychological fallout of the pandemic are also devastating. Physical and social isolation and depression due to family deaths, bankruptcies, marital tensions, and even hunger have occurred in most of the world including Israel.
Although Israel has been, until now, ranked at the age-standardized suicide rate in the third-lowest place for men and the fifth-lowest for women compared to 27 other advanced countries, this could change, according to psychiatrists and psychologists in the country who have for months been demanding immediate action to prevent suicide.
Reports of child abuse, violence against women, homelessness, and other worrisome phenomenon have increased since the onset of the Coronavirus, and suicide attempts and actual suicide naturally follow in their wake.
Finally, as part of the activities of the National Suicide Prevention Program, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has instructed his ministry staff to allocate a budget of about 14 million New Israeli Shekels for suicide prevention programs. In addition, NIS 9.5 million will be allocated to hotlines for dealing with mental distress as a result of the corona.
After a long period of cutting the budget for suicide prevention programs, the minister instructed to transfer six million shekels in favor of the “Choose Life” suicide-prevention program, implementing risk preparedness, bolstering treatment facilities, and inter-ministry work in the education system.
The rest of the budget will be used to strengthen the hotline system of ERAN (Emotional First Aid) and other volunteer efforts as well as the Amal company, which operates the caregiver training program in suicide prevention. ERAN and other call-in services have reported massive increases in calls for help from desperate people of all ages and backgrounds.
“The new suicide report cannot leave us indifferent,” said Edelstein. “The State of Israel is committed to mobilizing to prevent the phenomenon of suicide. Therefore, we have added an additional budget.”
The latest report on suicide includes information on the number and rate of suicides in the last three decades to 2017, and suicide attempts in the last decade to 2019. The information on the suicides is based on a file of causes of death that is updated by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in accordance with the registration of the cause of death and updates from other sources of information. The information about suicide attempts is based on visits to emergency facilities in general hospitals.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenage boys and young men aged 15 to 24 and the third for teenage girls and young women aged 15 to 24, as well as men aged 25 to 44. In 2017, 402 Israelis committed suicide, down from 482 in 2010.
Single and divorced persons are much more likely to commit suicide than married people. The suicide rate in Jerusalem, apparently due to the larger number of observant Jews, Muslim, and Christians, is much lower than in Haifa and the South.
May is the month with the most suicides, followed by June, January, and September, while December and October had lower rates. The authors of the report suggested the reason is holidays that occur according to the Hebrew months. Suicide is less frequent on Fridays and Shabbat.
In the last decade, the age-standardized suicide rate has dropped by 16% for men and by 31% for women. Since 2010, the suicide rate has dropped by 51% for males and 30% for females aged 15 to 24.
The suicide rate for religious Jews and Arabs is low, apparently due to the very negative view of the traditional religions on taking one’s life.
No doubt because of the pressures of moving to a new country, changing occupations, and losing economic status until they become settled, at-risk groups include former immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. In 2017, 26% of all suicides were Jews who were born in Ethiopia and who immigrated since1980 and natives of other countries who came since 1990.
The age-standardized suicide rate of former Soviet immigrants who immigrated since 1990 has been stable since the early 2000s because the numbers of new arrivals have greatly diminished since then and 1.6 to two times higher compared to Jews who were born in Israel. The suicide rate of Ethiopian natives who immigrated since 1980 has decreased in the last decade, but it is still higher than among Jews who are native Israelis.
However, the standardized suicide rate among the elderly is higher than the national average in the districts of Ashkelon, Acre, Rehovot, Haifa, Tel Aviv, the Sharon region, and Beersheba among Jews and others in the years 2015 and 2017. Suicide among the elderly is more common due to illness, loneliness, low income, and deaths of spouses.
In the decade of 2009 to 2019, there was an average of 6,200 suicide attempts per year and 6,838 in 2019. The rate was relatively stable in the years 2012 to 2019. The use of guns to commit suicide has declined steadily since 2005.
Among younger people, age 19 was the riskiest age for attempted suicide – 466 per 100,000 males compared to 395 females. By age 18, the rate for girls was higher, but from age 30, there was no significant difference between the sexes. Women are about 1.3-1.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than the rate of men who succeed. About half of the suicide attempts (45% of women’s and 37% of men’s) occurred before the age of 25.
The age-standardized suicide attempt rate among Arab women and the rate in all age groups 15 to 64 years has been declining in recent years, compared with the opposite trend between 2005 and 2011.
The rate of suicide attempts for young people born in the former Soviet Union who immigrated since 1990 is 4.1 times higher at the age of 10 to 14 and 1.8 times higher between the ages of 15-24 than Jews and others without immigrants, but from the age of 45, the rates are similar.
In the last decade, the age-standardized suicide rate of Ethiopians born since 1980 has been 1.2 times higher for women and 1.0 times higher for men than Jews and other native-born Israelis.
Dr. Zvi Fischel, chairman of the Israel Psychiatric Association, congratulated the health ministry to add budgets for the program to prevent suicide. He also called for bolstering the mental health services by adding manpower in psychiatric institutions to better treat the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.