Military Mental Health: A War Within

With the rising numbers of mental health issues in the Armed Forces leading to suicide, one wonders if policy makers need introspection, experts weigh in


Military Mental Health: A War Within

The Indian Armed Forces are indisputably capable of dealing with enemies. And there is no denying to the fact that no supreme power can stop the brave soldiers from guarding the Indian borders. Whether it is the icy peaks of the Himalayas, the vast stretches of desert, dense forests, or the depths of seas – the valour of Indian Armed Forces has always prevailed in every challenge.

The role played by all three forces, Army, Navy and Air Force in the times of Covid-19 pandemic in rescuing stranded people in other countries is praiseworthy and so is their work on the war footing during these tough times. It is no doubt that Indian soldiers can strike on terrorist havens anywhere, anytime, but it is difficult to say the same when it comes to battling with the enemies growing within them causing immense stress and anxiety, often leading them to end their life.

Losing personnel outside War

“In the last decade, the Indian Army in particular has witnessed about 1,100 suicides with 90 per cent of personnel who committed suicide were below officer ranks. About 62 per cent of the personnel ending their life are between 25-30 years of age.”
A Thousand yard stare by a Rashtriya Rifles personnel deployed in the Valley; File Photo

In the last decade, the Indian Army in particular has witnessed about 1,100 suicides. The numbers are tragic and surprising with 90 per cent of personnel who committed suicide were bellow officer ranks.

The numbers are high if not alarming, since about 62 per cent of the personnel ending their life are between 25-30 years of age, recent being Major Fayazullah Khan, a company commander of 6 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, who allegedly shot himself dead in January this year. In addition, there have been about 310 cases of fratricides in the Army since 2014, averaging about 103 cases per year. (Author’s data from prior study, cases may have risen since.)

“It is a national loss, as much time, effort and money has been spent in their selection, training, and mustering. Also, these are young deaths, in the prime of their youth with considerable amount of military training imbibed by them,” says Colonel PK ‘Royal’ Mehershi (Retd), a clinical psychologist and author of the Indian Army’s 2007 internal report on ‘suicides and fratricides’.

According to a recent study by the tri-service think tank, United Services Institution (USI), over half of the 1.3 million Army personnel are under severe psychological stress. In the past Ministry of Defence in their study claimed that the personnel committing suicides have personal issues such as land related disputes back home and apathy shown by civil authorities towards such problems.

However, the USI report suggests prolonged exposure of Indian Army personnel to Counter Insurgency (CI) / Counter Terrorism (CT) has been one of the major contributory factors for increased stress levels.

“Presently more than half of Indian Army personnel seem to be under severe stress. The Indian Army has been losing more personnel every year due to suicides, fratricides and untoward incidents than in response to any enemy and/or terrorist activities,” states the study.

According to various studies, suicide in the India Army is either pre-meditated, which takes certain degree of planning and time lag in execution, or Impulsive. Other types of suicidal cases involve failed attempts and Homicide with Suicide – killing of another colleague or a senior and then committing suicide to overcome guilt.

One death, many reasons

Colonel KC Dixit is of the opinion that stress can be addressed effectively only when junior and middle level officers are often visible in unit areas. “Mere presence of officers in difficult situations makes a soldier happy.”
Depression amongst the ranks is an increasing cause of concern; Representational Image

While the study mentioned major organisational causes of stress amongst Army officers such as inadequacies in the quality of leadership, overburdened commitments, inadequate resources, frequent dislocations, lack of fairness and transparency in posting and promotions, insufficient accommodation and non-grant of leaves, junior commissioned officers, on the other hand, are stressed owing to the delay and denial of leaves, excessive engagements, domestic problems, humiliation by seniors, lack of dignity, unreasonable restrictions on the use of mobile phones, lack of recreational facilities and conflict with seniors as well as subordinates.

“In India, every year we lose nearly a company size strength to this dangerous trend due to utter callousness and neglect by the system. Can we all pay our undivided attention to this important command function and gradually bring down this bone chilling statistic of suicide and fratricide in the Military?” worries Colonel Mehershi.

The officer also reveals that the victims are usually the Platoon Havaldars who pass direct orders to troops for certain night duties on the posts in field areas. “There, an individual feels wronged or overburdened with respect to duties,” he explains. The officer also points out that suicides are not directly related to deployment and the frequency of military tasks as there is no correlation between combat deployment and suicide.

“A soldier once trained well for combat and combat related roles, with resolute leadership can withstand pressures of tasks given at regular frequencies at different geographies. It is also part of man management to ensure that soldiers are not moved from one field posting to another with little time for recuperating,” specifies the Colonel.

According to Brigadier Rajiv Williams, YSM (Retd), academician, author and renowned defence and national security analyst, the primary factors leading to the stark contrast between the suicide rates among junior commissioned officers and commissioned officers is the education and an appropriate work environment. “It is a fact that problems increase with poor leadership and peer pressure.

The shortage in officers’ cadre has certainly contributed toward increasing stress levels. I believe senior leaders must have the capacity to foresee the quantum of work desired out of their subordinate colleagues and not unnecessarily pressurise them to accomplish beyond their capacities and raise the expectation bar at levels beyond the capability of command,” states the officer.

The experts also believe that the problems get accentuated when the desire to achieve self-promotion becomes the single driver than the achievable possible under the constraints of resources and capabilities. “Most Commanders for personal gains and perhaps to project as ‘Showmen’ accept tasks beyond their abilities to perform and hope the maxim of ‘Luck favours the brave’ will apply every time,” expresses brigadier Williams.

He also stresses on the realist of pressures from home that contributes to soldiers taking extreme steps especially when away from home for a long duration. “This gets compounded when families are not given due respect from the environment they reside and are put through physical and emotional stresses over time,” says the officer.

Colonel K. C. Dixit (Retd), researcher at the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA) explains that the suicides and fratricides are not a sudden scenario but has several warning signals such as poor motivation after returning from home, sudden mood changes, high irritability and at times drug addiction or alcohol dependency. “Such signs are accompanied by sleep disorders and growing pessimism. These lead to problems with spouses or superiors and then total dysfunction. Depression then worsens into panic, anger and rage.

The non-effective measures and stigmas

“Once the person is referred to a psychiatric help, he/she is stigmatised even within the defence circle. It affects the person’s morale and elevates the suffering as well,” Said a serving officer.
Soldiers put up a brave front to avoid stigma; Artists Rendition

For decades, stress among the Indian Armed Forces has been a topic of discussion, and over the last decade, it has attracted considerable concern as well. The figures quoted by the researchers and media houses have been taken note of by the law makers and military leadership. And several social measures have been applied to improve the psychological health of troops.

So far, the Indian Armed Forces are claimed to be upbeat with training and stress management projects. Besides other measures, mental health awareness is provided during pre-induction training and distress management has been institutionalised to reduce stress among troops. In addition, the Army and Air Force have also established a helpline to provide professional counselling. Moreover, preventing the mental stress of a soldier also lies with regimental authorities.

Experts believe by getting involved in troop’s problems, the commanding officer will earn admiration and respect – necessary when the troop is asked to risk their lives in a war-like situation. And hence it is important to have some deep introspection to the rising numbers of suicide cases in the Armed forces.

As of now, the effectiveness of these measures is questioned. It is also observed that despite not being active in any war apart from several counter-insurgency operations, the stress level, however, has still increased. Studies also reveal that the military personnel have managed to adapt to the temporary hardships of wartime and humanitarian missions that come with their occupational duties, but the hardships at their personal front are beyond their tolerance limit.

According to Brigadier Williams, the forces must ensure good military leaders who can take a stand at the peril of their personal ambitions and promotions prospects. “Inclusivity must replace all forms of selfish motives. I am sure solutions are being created to mitigate the problem at both the apex level and also at the executive level.

Most conversations are around pay perks, comparing ranks with civilian ranks and profiles, which have led to such an understanding or misunderstanding. I believe if we always stress on the importance of respect then solutions for suicides and fratricides will be tackled well,” opines the officer.

Similarly, Colonel Dixit is of the opinion that stress can be addressed effectively only when junior and middle level officers are often visible in unit areas. “Mere presence of officers in difficult situations makes a soldier happy. Indian Armed Forces today to tackle stress is required to motivate junior and middle level officers.

However, this will be possible only if adequate measures to assure career protection of officer cadre are implemented. To make up for the shortages of officers in the Army, the service conditions have to be made attractive. There is a need for an immediate cadre review to attract the right youth to join the army or other defence services,” says Colonel Dixit.

He also supports the idea of psychological counselling and religious teachers which can eventually help the military personnel deal with stress. “The strength of mental health professionals and religious teachers in Army hospitals is lower than required. A unit should always have special dedicated mental health staff and a religious teacher.

Counselling by such teams is bound to allow soldiers to work through stress, fear, anxiety, anger and frustration,” he says, suggesting, “Suicide awareness information must be made available to all ranks and buddies be tasked to watch out for such signs/signals in their colleagues.”

Psychiatric counselling! Not so acceptable

Asked if annual mental health counselling can be made mandatory in the forces, the officer responds in negative. “It can’t be, because it is a mechanism for aberrant behaviour. It affects the morale of the jawans or officers and thereby the entire force.”
Studies recommend mandatory mental health counselling; Representational Image

Although there have been conversations about mental health issues, yet it remains taboo across all the quarters of the society and defence forces are no exception. The personnel in the armed forces are prompted to hide their mental health problems as counselling with a psychiatrist is considered a stigma, which may affect their career.

“We refer to it as Form 10, which is raised only in extreme cases after exercising due diligence by the Commanding Officer of the unit. Once the person is referred to a psychiatric help he/she is stigmatised even within the defence circle. It affects the person’s morale and elevates the suffering as well,” says a serving officer in Indian Armed Forces on the condition of anonymity.

Asked if annual mental health counselling can be made mandatory in the forces, the officer responds in negative. “It can’t be, because it is a mechanism for aberrant behaviour. It affects the morale of the jawans or officers and thereby the entire force. The defence personnel are expected to be fit physically and mentally,” he responds.

Not worst, yet need introspection

Similarly, in Western European countries the numbers of defence personnel committing suicide are shooting up every year. However, it is still worrying in the highly-disciplined environment as it can be prevented through effective policies.
'Self-Inflicted Crisis' 2016 US Armed Forces data; Infographic

Raising suicide rate and mental health issue among Armed Forces is a concern, however, it is also to be noted that there is no evidence that suggests a stress epidemic in Indian Armed Forces.

Despite the reports suggesting increasing stress related illness over the last decade, the reports fail to highlight the relative low rates of suicide in the Armed Forces compared with civilian population of India - 16.5 suicides per 100,000 people - and Armed Forces of other first world countries. According to a year-old report by the Department of Defence in the USA, the overall rate of deaths by suicide across the services rose from 20.2 deaths per 1000,000 in 2015 to 25.9 in 2019.

Similarly, in Western European countries the numbers of defence personnel committing suicide are shooting up every year. However, it is still worrying in the highly-disciplined environment as it can be prevented through effective policies.

It is also important to note that the Indian studies conducted on the topic are more idealistic than pragmatic. For instance, most combat psychiatric research work from the USA and Europe is done by psychiatrists posted in field units, however, in India psychological programme works out of military hospitals. It is perhaps the time to experiment with a few field psychiatric units in the operational commands of the Indian Armed Forces to bring out more studies and tackle the issue efficiently.

(Features writer and editor, Priyanka Chandani is a journalist with over a decade of mainstream media experience having worked in Hindustan Times, Deccan Chronicle, Asian Age and the Free Press Journal. She is an ardent writer who intends to venture into writing about  military affairs especially for human interest stories pertaining to troop welfare. The author can be reached on email; priyankaonreport@gmail.com. Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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