Indian soldiers rising suicide rate alarms authorities

Indian soldiers rising suicide rate alarms authorities

NEW DELHI - The number of state police and Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) personnel who committed suicide in Chhattisgarh has gone up this year. As many as 36 personnel ended their own lives in the Maoist-affected state in 2017, the highest annual incidence in more than a decade, says a report based on data accessed by Hindustan Times. 

Before this, the highest toll for the state in one particular year was 13 in 2009. Between 2007-2010, as many as 368 CAPF soldiers committed suicide, while 208 lost their lives fighting. One of the things that pushes our jawans over the edge is depression. 

This is caused by a combination of factors: gruelling hours, hostile terrain, difficulty in getting leave and being to always be alert and vigilant. This is especially true in regions worst affected by Maoist violence — the seven districts of Bastar division: Kanker, Kondagaon, Jagdalpur, Dantewada, Sukma, Bijapur and Narayanpur. The constant fear that a landmine could at any moment blow up beneath one’s feet is not easy to deal with.

It isn’t that the Centre is not aware of the magnitude of the crisis. Replying to a question on suicides among armed forces personnel in the Rajya Sabha last year, minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju said 109 personnel killed themselves in 2014, 97 in 2015 and 82 in 2016. 

The one time the subject gets the undivided attention of our lawmakers is during question hour. This has remained true irrespective of which political coalition is in power. In ministry-speak — whether it is the UPA or the NDA regime — the reasons attributed to soldiers turning the barrel of the gun towards themselves are several: family problems; stress at work; depression; and fragile mental health. 

Even when the highest ranked officers admit that more personnel are dying of mental illnesses than in the line of duty – BSF director general KK Sharma said as much last year – politicians are unwilling to admit that our soldiers need help. Even when they do, little else changes except the routine posturing about improving their working conditions and bringing more transparency to leave and transfer policies.

Then there’s the question of stigma. A 2014 study by Medical Journal Armed Forces India suggests that 96% of our soldiers are reluctant to discuss mental health problems. Although the Indian Army — one of the biggest in the world — boasts a dedicated medical corps, resources allotted to dealing with mental health issues are limited. 

A high number of American Armed Forces personnel (97%) know where to turn when they need help. This is far from true in India. Soldiers in the army and paramilitary forces are periodically appraised on physical parameters. Isn’t it necessary that their mental well-being was regularly evaluated by trained psychologists to scope out suicidal tendencies? To reduce the reluctance of the soldiers in admitting they need help, technology can come to the rescue. 

The State can always evolve an online counselling mechanism or a suicide helpline dedicated to our jawans. It’s time we slay the invisible killer of depression before it gets to more of our soldiers.