In a newspaper report in December last year, it was said that the army loses 1,600 personnel every year without going to war. The figures, obtained from the Ministry of Defence, indicate that at an average 350 soldiers, sailors and airmen die in accidents, while 120 commit suicide.
Other causes remain health and training accidents. Losing the size of almost two battalions a year to such incidents suggest these are large figures, which the military should be seeking to reduce. As per the report, physical casualties are 12 times higher than battle casualties.
The Minister of State for Defence, Subash Bamre, stated in Parliament that the Defence Institute of Psychological Research conducted a study on causes of suicides in the army and had recommended introduction of stress-busting mechanisms. The same study, as per Bamre, stated that maximum suicides occur when soldiers return from leave.
In another article, noted valleybased psychiatrist Arshad Hussain, who conducted a study on suicides on army and para-military forces in the valley gave multiple causes for suicides, including mental stress in operational environment, humiliation at the hands of superiors, restrictions on leave, poor living conditions etc.
He also stated that though armed forces personnel stay away from families, they are constantly updated on problems at home through cell phones and social media. “In spite of these tools of connectivity and communication, this can act as a doubleedged sword when they connect the jawan with domestic problems and communicate distress on a daily basis to those who are unable to do much to resolve their family issues being away from home”, he claimed.
A study published by the IDSA, conducted by Colonel KC Dixit in 2011 also listed multiple reasons for suicides. His study was based on a survey involving over 1,000 personnel. An important deduction in his study is that maximum suicides are in peace stations, thus removing operational stress as the major contributor while highlighting personal stress. However, stress due to service conditions remains a contributor.
In most large armies across the globe, psychological testing at the time of joining is restricted to officers as it is time-consuming and tedious. Hence for other ranks individuals with reduced mental robustness may join, if they are physically fit.
They find it difficult to bear multiple pressures later in life, despite all the training and bonding. Suicides amongst officers, who have undergone psychological tests prior to joining, are much lower, though they do occur.
A soldier joins at a young age, when his parents hold the family together. With passage of time, his parents grow old, family property comes up for dispute or is divided, adding to his stress levels. The soldier after marriage is hopeful that his family will adjust with his parents as they cannot remain with him due to service conditions. This in some cases does not happen, increasing stress.
At times, his family having no one with whom to share their personal complaints project the same to the soldier during tele-conversations, which enhances stress levels. Family stress levels added to operational or working environment stress push some soldiers to take the extreme step.
In earlier days, prior to proliferation of cell phones, most units had an STD booth from where soldiers could call their families. It was feasible for a capable individual manning the booth to comprehend from facial expressions whether the soldier was under stress, which could then be tactfully acted upon by his superiors. The same is now difficult with the proliferation of individual cellular devices. Social media with a vast array of fake information also adds to stress.
Family pressures also flow from harassment of families at their place of residence, especially in rural areas, over which the soldier does not have much control. The unit then approaches state authorities at district levels for resolving these issues. There are occasions when such requests have not been adequately addressed enhancing stress in the individual.
Most cases of such harassment involve anti-social elements and concern property or financial issues, which if handled positively, would do wonders for a soldier’s morale. Poor response from states across the board prompted the erstwhile defence minister AK Antony to write to all CMs on this issue. It would need to be regularly repeated as institutional memories remain short.
The army continues to adapt to changing technology and impact of growing use of social media, which are double-edged swords. While suicides cannot be stopped, measures to reduce them can be implemented. It falls on officers and senior men to maintain regular contact down the rank and file, breaking barriers, enhancing trust and enabling an individual to open and share his worries.
The army at the central level is working towards this goal by improving living and working conditions, enforcing liberal leave policies and psychological training. In some operational formations there are also instructions for non-operational deployment of a soldier for a few days post his return from leave.
The intention is to let him blend with his colleagues prior to being involved in operations. This ensures that if he has returned with stress, it subsides before he is given a weapon.
There are multiple causes for suicides. Most studies have listed personal causes involving family as the most probable, which get added to other stresses in his working environment.
Unless family pressures are shared, they are the most dangerous as they gnaw at the soldier from within. Working pressures can still be controlled by those in command at various levels.
There is no simple solution for curtailing suicides, however with an open policy and interaction, stress levels can be reduced and with it suicide cases brought down.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.