To contain suicides, BSF plans annual mental health tests

Based on how they fare in the test, soldiers will be assigned duties and corrective measures taken. Until now only annual physical tests were held to see if soldiers were fit to discharge their duties.

Written by Deeptiman Tiwary | New Delhi | Updated: May 14, 2018 6:57:10 am
To contain suicides, BSF plans annual mental health tests The steps follow year-long research, where the force studied the pattern of suicides by its personnel and analysed the reasons for the same. (Express Photo by Shuaib Masoodi/Archives)

TRYING to contain suicides among paramilitary forces, the BSF has made it mandatory for all its personnel to undergo an annual test to determine their mental health. Based on how they fare in the test, soldiers will be assigned duties and corrective measures taken. Until now only annual physical tests were held to see if soldiers were fit to discharge their duties.

The BSF has also come up with a broad set of guidelines on ensuring recreational time for soldiers, holding periodic meetings on the pattern of Alcoholics Anonymous where they can share personal stories, mandatory interviews for all those returning from leave, and an informal mechanism to address grievances.

The steps follow year-long research, where the force studied the pattern of suicides by its personnel and analysed the reasons for the same. Two hundred BSF medics were then trained in clinical psychology in consultation with psychiatrists from London to conduct the tests to determine mental health of jawans. The programme is being called ‘Holistic Well-Being Intervention’ so as to avoid stigma related to mental illness. Read | Death of a jawan

Officials said their research showed that suicides were higher among personnel from poor socio-economic background, and mostly among the 25-35 age group. However, there was not much difference in suicide rates when it came to the marital status of personnel or whether they belonged to nuclear or joint families.

“Poor motivation, alcohol dependency, sleep disorders, problems with spouse or other relatives at home, unfavourable working conditions, financial issues, anger and helplessness” were identified as factors leading to stress and depression and eventually suicides.

Inspector General Satwant Atwal Trivedi, who has been a student of clinical psychology and oversaw the project, said, “Suicides anywhere are tragic, but when a trained soldier commits it, it’s loss of a national asset. We want to do our best and provide the best possible environment and care to ensure our soldiers do not take the extreme step. Until now, the healthcare routine in the forces was not too focused on mental well-being. We believe if problems are recognised early and taken care of, tragedies can be averted.”

BSF sources said the suicide research was an eye-opener in how many myths it broke. “It has often been argued that marital discords lead to suicides, but data shows that the share of single men and married individuals was equal. Nuclear families are also blamed often, but the research revealed that 51 per cent of the victims were from nuclear families and 49 per cent from joint,” an officer said.

About their findings regarding the age of the suicide victims, and their financial background, a psychologist associated with the programme said, “Our understanding is that the magnitude of our struggles with finances, family issues or work-related stress is higher when one is young. With the passage of time, one learns to adjust with one’s situation. It is in this period that these vulnerable individuals need to be spotted and taken care of.”

As part of the research, officials took up case studies, such as going through the diary of a soldier who had committed suicide. While by all accounts, he was appreciated at his job, and had no family issues or responsibilities, an official said the diary showed otherwise. “We found he was terribly lonely. He came from a broken family and was raised by his maternal uncle who gave him a lot of love, but his uncle’s wife was not that affectionate. He had written that he was very happy when his sister got married into a good family, but that he now felt alone. He also felt he was not made for the job, but recognised that he wouldn’t get a better job.”

In the case of a cook on sentry duty, the research showed that he was uncomfortable carrying a gun, and the stress led him to kill himself.

“These are cases where the signs are so subtle that a company commander would never spot it unless trained in clinical psychology. That is why the quetionnaire we have prepared has some very simple questions such as ‘How are you feeling today’, ‘Are you sleeping well these days’, to gauge whether a person is leading a normal life or not,” a psychologist said.

Field units will soon be issued booklets containing the string of guidelines to help destress soldiers, including group games, and good diet and proper healthcare. Among the additions is asking commanders to ensure their “troops get time for recreation and that facilities (games, TV, movies and books) are available”. Commanders are also being asked to ensure that grievances are addressed by them informally as the formal channel takes too long and frustrates the personnel.

Units are being asked to create mutual-aid fellowship groups and organise sessions — called ‘Ghar Ki Baat’ — where personnel will talk about their problems and experiences.

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