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Soldier suicides cause for concern

The report on suicides in the armed forces by Minister of State for Defence Jitendra Singh in the Lok Sabha is shocking. It appears that at least 120 defence personnel commit suicide each year because of stress. This is an upsetting statistic which should alarm all Indians, though the figures seem to have come down marginally over the previous years. 120 is a large number indeed and mirrors the number of soldiers killed in active service on the borders of India during peace time. These suicides reveal the despair felt by many of these defence personnel as well the inability of the armed forces to deal with them. It is not difficult to understand the anguish felt by these soldiers who take their own lives. They suffer from damage to their deeply held beliefs about right and wrong caused by something that they did or fail to do with the resultant breakdown in moral certainty. These psychological factors are besides the extremely stressful conditions of work that they face and the harsh disciplined life that they are subject to. Soldiers today face unprecedented challenges and not all of them seem to be able to cope with these. It is hardly comforting that suicide rates in first world armies such as that of the United States have been rising alarmingly and neither does it help matters to say that the suicide rates in the armed forces are less than that of the general population.

It is clear that measures that have been put in place by the armed forces after a study done by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research to identify stress-points have not been effective. Defence Minister A K Antony had taken a personal interest in this issue and had written to Chief Ministers to make the administration more responsive to the grievances and complaints of serving soldiers and their families. This is as it should be. The government has also taken several other measures to combat suicide in the ranks. The ministry of defence has appointed more psychological counsellors at the unit level, introduced yoga sessions and also issued guidelines to liberalise leave-granting practices. However, much more needs to be done so that individuals become resilient and cope with life in the armed forces. The government and the armed forces need to introspect on the possible causes of suicide as well as on the quality of leadership at the various levels.
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