Imagine you joined a new job. Strangers surround you. Everyone around you is high and mighty. How would you feel? Now imagine this job takes you miles away from your home. You wake up in the break of the dawn, have no specific work hours. You cannot eat what you want, wear what you like, or even call your family regularly. Will this stress you? Now take this to the borders of a nation, that shares hostile territory with the neighbor. Every moment spent is uncertain. Every man, woman, and child around you, is a suspect. The country is politicking about your life. Oh, and you have to be ready to die, without so much as a whimper, because ‘call of duty’. They trained you for this, they trained you to be a weapon. But, what happens if the human in you questions your duties? Will that stress you out? Depress you, perhaps? This is an oversimplified life of a soldier. The mental health of Indian Armed Forces is one of the least discussed perils facing our country.
Mental Health of Armed Forces: An Occupational Hazard
According to 2010 census, there are, approximately, 1.4 million soldiers in India (making us one of the world’s largest armed forces). Let us dwell on some more numbers now: about 100 soldiers commit suicide every year, since 2003. In the last 5 years alone, 597 soldiers have committed suicide. In the period of 2007 – 2010, 208 soldiers lost their lives fighting, while 368 soldiers committed suicide.(source). I am willing to bet that, the number of people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is much larger
Distance from family, inability to assist in family distress, marital discord, coupled with poor salary, lack of amenities, denial of leave, and extreme or ineffective leadership, are the triggers.
What are we doing about it?
Let’s be honest. We are doing pitifully little, if nothing, about it.
Earlier this year, the government pointed out that they have been taking measures to mitigate the issue. The Government promises to be working on improving living conditions, offering family accommodations, liberalizing leave policy, establishing a grievance redressal forum, and conducting yoga and meditation for de-stressing. The Government is also training a number of senior officials in counseling, to aid trickle down support. But, it is obviously too little, too late.
Sporadic research is also being undertaken to understand the causes of stress in the Indian Armed forces more deeply. One such study focuses on the demographics that affect stress in Indian Armed Forces. The survey of over 400 soldiers found that the young and single soldiers, belonging to lower ranks, with a service experience of fewer than 10 years, were most prone to occupational stress. Also, unequal workload as ranks increases cause stress. Simple things like adequate job training in certain cases, income parity, and mentor-ship can help, the study iterates.
Lack of Infrastructure and Empathy
The Indian Armed Forces has an appalling lack of mental healthcare facilities. In-house mental health professionals are a rarity.
But, the most difficult barrier to mental health among Indian Armed Forces, is the stigma and lack of empathy, from the society.
A study carried out by Medical J Armed Forces of India states that 96% of the soldiers feel discussing mental health or accepting any mental health problems holds a big stigma. This prevents the person from seeking help. Not just the patients, the caregivers also feel discriminated against. Our society, in general, looks down upon mental illness as a ‘weakness’. In a high-stress environment, like the armed forces, it is even more stigmatized. Getting detected or treated for mental illness is a career threat. Unfortunately, little support is available in the system or the society.
Technology to the Rescue
Post Iraq and Afghanistan, USA’s spending on mental health tripled, from 1.1 million USD to 3.3 million USD. One of their key moves was to screen for mental health through an online, personalized process, that made the process more efficient, while reducing the stigma attached to manual screening. While this is an expensive solution, it does tackle the key issue of social stigmatization, and career threat.
While stigma has not quite been eradicated even from countries that have dappled with technology as a solution, 97% American Armed Forces personnel know where they can go to ask for help. This can hardly be said about India.
Let’s start talking!
It is indeed hypocritical of us a nation to be empathetic towards a soldier’s hardships, while remaining oblivious to, and abetting the lack of support for their mental healthcare.
We need to start a constructive discussion on arriving at a solution. Not just the government, the citizen should raise awareness, so as to reduce the stigma. It is high time that popular culture, like cinemas and soaps, stop depicting Army as a parody of impenetrable strength, while completely ignoring the human aspect of coping with a rough career. If anything, we should demand that the Government work towards easing and improving living conditions for our armed forces, and provide them the care that they deserve.
How the U.S. Army Personalized Its Mental Health Care by Jayakanth Srinivasan, Millard D. Brown, Christopher G. Ivany and Jonathan Woodson
Do Demographic Variables affect the Stress Levels of Indian Soldiers? Sakshi Sharma
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