COVID-19 has not only killed over half-a-million people around the world and caused widespread economic havoc. The pandemic has put many teenagers under great emotional distress that could have serious consequences for years to come. 

A report on the situation in Israel was presented on Sunday to President Reuven Rivlin by ELEM (Youth in Distress), the voluntary organization deeply concerned with at-risk Israeli youth. ELEM usually releases an annual report, but in view of the pandemic, it decided to release an update covering the period since the breakout of the new Corona virus

The special report, which covers March to May 2020, notes a significant rise in problems since the onset of COVID-19, reviews the condition of 4,800 teens who suffer from emotional anxiety, eating disorders, depression, mental crises, severe loneliness and have even made suicide attempts. There was also a sharp increase in reporting of verbal and sexual violence among the youth compared to previous year. The situation also pushed more youths into drinking alcohol and taking drugs. 

ELEM was founded 34 years ago out of social responsibility for the fate of youth at-risk in Israel. Since its establishment, it has been at the forefront working for youth and raising awareness of their distress onto the social and national agenda. ELEM provides youth and young adults with unique programs that were developed in accordance with their needs and in full cooperation with local authorities, governmental ministries and third-sector organizations. 

ELEM helps youths in all of Israel’s communities, including the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the Arab sector. It runs over 80 projects throughout the country, serving 20,000 teens and young people every year.  Among its projects are youth centers, homeless shelters, shelters for young people in prostitution, night vans where social workers and other professionals provide counseling to youth wandering in the streets, treatment centers for minors who are sexually abused and programs that help youths integrate into the workplace.

“The Corona crisis has hit all citizens of the world, but it has also made the weak in society much weaker,” Rivlin said upon receiving the latest report. “The guidelines for lockdown may be dangerous for those for whom the home is not a safe place.”  

Since the onset of the pandemic, said the president, “we learned about the importance of the welfare state,” he continued. “It is an expression of the value of societal concern for others. For youths who are in distress and at risk, shutting down welfare and education institutions means increasing dangerous situations, sometimes endangering their lives. They need support, a hug, an attentive ear, even if it has to be via computer and smartphone screens.”

The president thanked the association’s representatives for their important work and said: “You are the angels of the young people at risk.”

“When the pandemic began, we stepped up our activity and continued to meet the youth in all arenas of activity, with adjustments to the new situation – on the streets, the association’s emergency centers, social networks and Zoom,” said ELEM president Nava Barak (the former wife of Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister and defense minister. “We have not given up on any boy or girl.”

These were among the worrisome findings of the latest ELEM report:

The number of homeless teens who were thrown out of their family homes rose 47% above the 2019 figure (251 reported cases during the first three months of the lockdown), while those who fled from their homes numbered 145. The number of teens who tried to kill or seriously injure themselves was 231. A total of 143 had an encounter with the police. The prevalence of eating disorders (anorexia and other types) rose by 50%. The number of teens who contacted ELEM because of anxiety increased by 43%, because of hunger 13%, loneliness 29%, physical and/or verbal violence at home (up 7%, a 70% rise compared to the same period in 2019) and sexual violence (almost twice that of 2019).  

“Corona has shaken the entire world. In the midst of all the difficulty and adaptation to the new reality – weak populations that are routinely marginalized, have been pushed even further to the edge,” added Barak. 

“Many at-risk youth across the country who ordinarily face a variety of difficulties every day have suffered in the current situation more than ever before. At Elam,” she concluded,”we found ourselves facing new challenges and to cope with the situation we increased our activity and continued to meet the youth in all arenas, making adjustments to the new situation – in the streets, the association’s emergency centers, the social networks and online.”