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Army worried as depressed soldiers pull the trigger on themselves

By Syed Nazakat in Delhi

Pakistan-trained terrorists attacked Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001. The one million-plus strong Army was immediately mobilised for war. Tens of thousands of troops moved overnight from peace stations to the scorching border desert and bone-chilling border mountains. Leave was cancelled, weddings were postponed, honeymoons cut short, last rites of departed parents left unperformed.

One million hearts, otherwise brave, were tense. The balloon could go up any time. Early January, Army chief Gen S. Padmanabhan informed the cabinet that the Army was ready. Tension rose further in every military station.  Kaluchak in Jammu was one such family station. Padmanabhan had mobilised most of the troops from there to the border. The families remained there, with a few soldiers on logistics and guard duty. On the night of May 14, a few terrorists blazed their way into the thinly-guarded camp, and sprayed bullets at 38 wives, mothers and children of soldiers. It was a direct attempt to provoke. Suddenly the soldier on the border realised: his dear and near ones, too, faced death, just as he did.

Sensing the outrage in the Army, the chief openly talked of war. One million hearts were tense, he knew. One such tense heart was that of Sepoy Jagmohan Singh of 27 Punjab. He was moved to Kaluchak camp in Jammu on June 21, 2002, a month after the massacre. The horror of the incident was still palpable in the air. One day, the unit commander, Subedar Kuldeep Raj, “called me early morning (at about 5.30 a.m.) to know why his telephone was not working,” Jagmohan Singh would later say. “He abused me and slapped me in front of everybody. I felt very embarrassed.”

Humiliated and disturbed, Jagmohan went back to Kuldeep Raj’s room with a rifle. The subedar taunted him again: “Mere ko goli marnae ke liye aaya hai? (Have you come to shoot me?)” Jagmohan replied: “Maine kis liye marnee? (Why should I shoot you?)”

He then lifted his rifle and fired at the subedar, killing him on the spot.

Jagmohan displayed what military psychologists call aggression on frustration. But more often, frustrated soldiers display depression: they pull the trigger on themselves. “When a person is frustrated, his frustration can get converted into aggression or depression,” said Dr Manas Kumar Mandal, director of Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR). “If it is aggression, it becomes fratricide; if it is depression, it becomes suicide. Both are self-defeating behaviours.”

The statistics are chilling. According to the ministry of defence, every third day an Indian soldier is killing himself; at a rate higher than the toll taken by militants. From 2007 to May 2010, militants have killed 208 soldiers in the last three years; 368 soldiers have killed themselves in the same period. Another 15 to 30 soldiers try to kill themselves every year, but fail. The worry is: they may try again.

Till a year ago, the suicide rate was more than 100 a year. Improved psychiatric help and better manpower coordination brought down the number to 89 last year, but the Army is worried that there have been 43 suicides in the first five months of this year. The Army has been putting up a brave face saying that the suicide rate per thousand is still lower than that among the civilian population. However, Dr Prasanna Kumar Patasani, a member of Parliament’s standing committee on defence, which recently examined the issue of stress management in the armed forces, would not buy the argument. “The suicide rate within the Army is shocking,” he said. “Soldiers theoretically are screened for mental illnesses frequently, and are being medically examined every time they return to their unit after leave. You cannot compare the statistics of general people with the Army personnel. Soldiers have access to counselling and health services that millions of ordinary people cannot afford.”

So serious is the matter that the defence ministry has conducted seven studies since 2005 to find out what drove otherwise normal-looking soldiers to end their lives. The reports have been marked ‘classified’, on the ground that selective reporting of results could hit troop morale. This has led to even bizarre ideas being aired by responsible people. For example, Lt-Gen. N.K. Parmar, then director-general of Armed Forces Medical Service, suggested in January that soldiers on field duty should be barred from using cellphones. “Cellphones allow the soldiers to maintain regular contact with their families and get updated on their problems, which leads to higher levels of stress among them,” he said.

Parmar’s remedy is scoffed at by those who know better. “I don’t believe in this argument and we have never suggested it,” said Mondal. “As a military psychologist, I think cellphone should not be banned. Once it is available freely across the country, [its denial] will be felt as deprivation.”

Though Parmar’s solution was impracticable, experts concede that he has correctly identified the problem. More often it is the problem back home that makes the soldier feel helpless, and drives him to suicide than work-related stress. In its report of April 4, 2010, Parliament’s standing committee pointed out: “The inability of the soldiers to solve their family problems due to operational requirements and other constraints within which they have to work results in enhanced negative stress which leads to behavioural problems including suicide and fratricidal killing.”

The biggest problem, according to battalion commanders, is the soldier’s helplessness in property disputes back home. There are several instances of neighbours or even own brothers making use of the soldier’s long absence from home to encroach on his property. The exigencies of service prevent the soldier from being able to pursue the case. “Most soldiers come from villages and look forward to retirement when he can go back and till his land,” said a regimental officer. The problem had been identified several years ago, but little has been done except for every defence minister writing routine letters to chief ministers requesting sympathetic disposal of land disputes involving soldiers. It is almost a joke in the ministry that every defence minister’s first action after taking charge is to write to chief ministers to help expedite soldiers’ land disputes. And there it ends.

According to the ministry of defence, the approximate ratio of suicides in peace versus field duty areas is 70:30. “Deployment in counter-insurgency takes its toll on the soldier’s mental health,” said a battalion commander. “But that is not the root cause for suicides. The root cause lies in family problems.” According to him, majority of the suicides occur while the soldier is on leave or soon after returning from home. “Once a soldier goes home on leave, he has hundred and one things on his mind. When he returns to his unit after leave, he realises that he was unable to solve many of the problems at home. This frustration makes him prone to stress and suicide.”

The latest case, of Sepoy Sujit Kumar, 36, of Badi Endhu village in Bihar, is illustrative. On May 22, the night after he reached home on leave, depressed and irritable, his wife told him something that angered him. Sujit took out a country pistol he had procured somehow and fired a single shot into the side of his head.

Social apathy has been identified as another reason for troop frustration. “An Army man believes that he is facing all sorts of difficulties to serve his nation and countrymen,” said Dr (Col) G.R. Golencha, who has served as a psychiatrist for over two decades. “The soldier has this sense of honour and duty that motivates him to face any challenge. But when people don’t even bother to give him a seat in the train, he starts questioning his commitment towards his job and the nation. There is a direct link to apathy in some of the cases [of suicide] we’re witnessing.”

Contrary to common belief, suicides and fratricides don’t happen suddenly. There are warning signs, such as poor job motivation after returning from home, sudden mood changes, high irritability, and at times drug addiction. Such signs are accompanied by sleep disorders and growing pessimism. These lead to problems with spouse or boss and then total social dysfunction. Depression then worsens into panic, anger and rage.

Beneath the lip of his helmet the soldier is a common man with family, career ambitions and related problems. In addition is the stress of combat. Recently this correspondent stayed with an Army unit at a forward operating base near the Line of Control in Poonch. While going out for patrol in the middle of the night, a fully armed young officer, his face creased with fatigue, told me: “On such nights, we are on the edge. The only way to stay alive is to keep all your senses on full alert at all times.” When stress presses in, dark and suffocating, he pens letters to home. “That gives you a feeling that there are people who are waiting for you. It makes you happy,” he said.

The majority of soldiers who kill themselves use their service weapons. The combination of combat exposure and ready access to guns can be lethal to anyone mulling suicide. Combat exposure can at times lead to trauma—such as seeing flashbacks of combat, killings or the face of a fallen comrade who may have told you about his children. Memories of unintentional slayings can also haunt them for long. “We had laid an ambush for militants in one of the villages in Kupwara,” a serving officer recounted a June 1993 incident with a shudder. “After a while, we saw three men in long dress [Kashmiri pheren] moving around. The troops asked them to stop for security check. The men got scared on seeing the Army and tried to escape. ‘Stop, don’t run! We will fire!’ the soldiers shouted. But the three men continued to run, and the troops fired. On body search all the three men turned out to be innocent village boys.”

For almost four years, the officer was hunted by violent flashbacks of that incident. He still would not reveal who pulled the trigger.

Coupled with suicide is the problem of fratricide or even fragging (killing of superiors). Most fragging cases result from humiliating taunts by seniors, as in the case of Sepoy Jagmohan Singh. The battle against fratricide seems to have been won with only 11 incidents in the last three years. “It is a big achievement,” said an officer. “One of the main reasons is that the commanding officers are now reaching out to soldiers in the field and in peace stations.” Yet the crippling manpower shortage worries the Army. Currently, the Army is short of some 12,000 officers which, at times, forces three or four officers to do the work of 20. This leaves a commanding officer with little time to devote to his troops. The battalion commander (colonel) is supposed to be the father, mother, brother, uncle and counsellor to his troops. If he is unable to spare time for his troops, that demoralises them. In case of suicide in the unit, the first person to be questioned is the battalion commander. It goes into his ACR as a negative point.

The Defence Institute of Psychological Research recently conducted a detailed questionnaire-and-interview survey of more than 2,000 troopers in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast. The report, which has been reviewed by Defence Minister A.K. Antony at least thrice, has identified the main reasons which drive soldiers to suicide:

1. Prolonged and chronic stress of working in inhospitable and difficult terrain

2. Long separation from family, domestic problems

3. Increased workload; zero-error syndrome; lack of adequate sleep and rest in counter-insurgency operations.

4. Denial of leave even in times of extreme domestic problems

5. Constant threat of imminent attack by the enemy, reminders of nearness of death, sudden violence, lack of support from local population

6. Perceived harassment and humiliation by superior officers

The Army has initiated a Stress Amelioration Action Plan (SAAP), involving more senior leadership attention, better training, attacking the stigma traditionally attached to seeking psychiatric help, and training more mental health providers. One particular initiative has been to start rest and recuperation centres in Jammu and Kashmir where soldiers undergo stress-busting therapies for a week. As Major Shailendra Singh Arya of the regiment of artillery pointed out in the United Service Institution of India paper: “Some people sit back and watch films, while others settle for meditation. We need not necessarily follow western models of combating stress. Traditional Indian techniques like yoga and meditation are equally effective, if not more so.”

Another initiative has been to examine soldiers returning from home leave for physiological and psychological stress. They are asked whether they suffer from nightmares, depression and sleep disturbance. “Those who report stress are even gently asked whether they have thought of suicide,” said a battalion commander.

Officers also acknowledge that denial of leave, especially during family emergencies, can be suicidally or fratricidally frustrating. One major initiative has been to liberalise annual leave. Now, officers can take annual leave in three parts instead of two. There are no restrictions on splitting of annual leave by personnel below officer rank. The frequency of chartered flights transporting soldiers from remote locations has been increased; more than 100 flights were arranged from Jammu alone last year. More flats are being built to accommodate families—57,875 dwelling units are to be built by the end of this year in the first phase of the Married Accommodation Project (MAP). Thanks to the initiatives, “we have succeeded in bringing the [suicide] rate down by almost 30 per cent in the last year,” said Army spokesman Col Om Singh. “We are working hard to bring the toll further down.”

One proposal is to subject all the aspirants to psycho-screening at entry level. Till now, only officer aspirants were subjected to such screening. The DIPR has developed an entry-level personality test, expected to be in place this year, for aspiring troopers. “Our effort is not only to test a person’s positive traits but also to ensure the absence of negative traits,” said Dr. Mandal.

The DIPR has also recommended that there should be one psychologist for every thousand soldiers. Currently there are 29 psychiatric centres in the three services, but there is not a single psychiatrist in the field hospitals at the division (a division has around 10,000 troops) level. To fill the huge gap, the medical corps is training paramedical staff (90 trained so far) as psychological counsellors. The services of religious teachers are also being used to counsel soldiers. “There is no simple solution,” said Dr. Mandal.

 “It is going to require a multidisciplinary approach and team effort at every level of command across all the armed forces components. My best hope is that if we succeed in selecting the right guy, then half the battle is won.”

 (July, 25, 2010, THE WEEK)

Interview of Dr Manas Kumar Mandal, director of Defence Institute of Psychological Research

“If domestic problems of soldiers can be taken care of, their stress levels will come down”

 The Defence Institute of Psychological Research, a premier institute of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, interviewed about 2,000 soldiers in the eastern and northern commands to understand what led soldiers to commit suicide and fratricide. The findings, submitted to the defence ministry in January 2007, revealed that the main reason was discontent over leave and occupational hazards. Till now, only officer aspirants and those being screened for deputation to the National Security Guard were subjected to psychological screening. Now the DIPR has developed an entry-level personality test, expected to be in place this year for all aspiring troopers. The aim is to eliminate candidates possessing ‘negative psychological traits’. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, DIPR director Dr Manas Kumar Mandal spoke of the programme and the challenges faced by soldiers. Excerpts:

What is DIPR’s role in the selection of soldiers?

As of now all officers have to undergo a psychological test [at entry level]. The world over, selection of [army] officers is based on a psychological test. The difference between India and other countries is that, elsewhere they depend more on reasoning intelligence, while we bank on a personality-basis system.

Is DIPR developing a psychology test for all aspiring soldiers?

We have developed an Other-Rank Selection System for persons below officer rank. The trial is already on and we have handed over the system to the Army. The procedure is to test their reasoning and intelligence abilities and also their personality. Our effort is to find a person’s positive traits and ensure absence of negative traits. Our role at DIPR is to develop technical consultancy, the questionnaire, social situations and certain conflict situations and then expose the candidates to these situations and observe their reaction.

 When is this test going to start?

By the end of this year. It took us three and a half years to develop this system. It is a huge exercise keeping in view the manpower of the Army. We have already trained officers for the system. It will take around 15 minutes. Every soldier has to go through the test, which will help us recruit mentally strong soldiers.

 What do you think is the reason behind the spurt in the number of suicides in the Army?

We did a study on suicides in the Army two years ago and we made certain recommendations. As part of these recommendations, now we are going to have the Other-Rank Selection System. There is no specific cause for suicides. The vulnerability at the field is so much that any normal person can break down. This is a tough service and then fighting those insurgencies… But I would say that it is not significantly above the national average. If domestic problems of soldiers can be taken care of, their stress levels will come down significantly.

 Has deployment to fight insurgencies made soldiers more prone to suicides?

The armed forces like to give soldiers as much respite as possible. Yet their job is very challenging and their working environment is very harsh. It is because the forces are very disciplined and highly trained that they tolerate stress. There is an argument that cellphones lead to higher levels of stress. There was a suggestion to ban use of mobile phones by soldiers posted in troubled areas. I don’t believe in this argument and we have never suggested it. We have said in our report that the cellphone helps soldiers to get rid of isolation. As a military psychologist, I think it should not be banned.

Are Indian men more prone to suicide?

No, not at all. In our country, our religions, principles and social practices absorb shock in a much better way than western societies.

How important is the role of leadership in tackling suicides?

I think the leadership must be able to take care of unwanted things in society. Today we are advocating bottom-driven leadership, a leader who can initiate a kind of activity that can be generated at the bottom level. In future wars, we believe that a leader may not be in a position to command many people. So handling a small team effectively is going to be crucial. The leadership concept is changing. In a conventional war, the leadership concept is altogether different from an unconventional one. You may have to sit somewhere and give directions.

What makes a soldier prone to suicide?

An individual resorts to suicide when all other resources are exhausted and all attempts to cope with the situation have failed. The common factors that are responsible for suicide in the military include prolonged work in inhospitable terrain, constant exposure to violence and apathetic attitude of  superior officers. Most suicide crises are limited in terms of time and will pass if help is provided. Most people communicate their intention at some point before committing suicide.

 Is the triggering factor of suicide and fratricide different?

When a person is frustrated, his frustration can either get converted into aggression or depression. If it is aggression it becomes fratricide; if it is depression it becomes suicide. Both are self-defeating patterns of behaviour.

BOX Story

Six myths about suicide

Myth: Talking about suicide encourages suicide attempts

Fact: It actually decreases possibility of suicide

Myth: People who try to kill themselves must be mentally ill

Fact: 3 out of 4 people have no sign of mental illness before their death.

Myth: Most suicides occur with little or no warning

Fact: Suicides doesn’t occur suddenly. There are some warning signs like sudden mood changes in behavior, restlessness, depression.

Myth: People who threaten suicide don’t do it

Fact: Most people communicate their intention for suicide at some time before actually doing it.

Myth: Once a person attempts suicides, he will not do it again

Fact: 50% of successful suicide victims have attempted suicide previously.

Myth: Once suicidal, a person remains suicidal forever

Fact: Most suicidal crises are limited in terms of time, and will pass, if help is provided

(Source: Defence Institute of Psychological Research)

BOX

Army casualty in counter insurgency operations

2007 – 83

2008 -64

2009 -48

2010 -13

Total – 208

(Source: defence ministry)

Causalities in suicides in Army

2007 – 112

2008 – 124

2009 -] 89

2010 (till May 31) – 43

(Source: defence ministry)

(JULY 25, 2010, THE WEEK)

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