Fragging and suicide in the Army and the general population
A lot has been said about security failures in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks – a shortage of personnel, poor equipment, poor coordination and poor training. The burden then is on the security personnel – it is they who have to deliver. But at the end of it all, it is these men, the security personnel, who lead the hardest life…they are overworked, underpaid, chronically short on sleep, separated from their loved ones, and often have to put their life at risk. What is the physical and psychological toll that they have to bear?
High stress and high risk
Well, in the last three years Indian army has recorded a 45 percent increase in the number of troops being discharged due to some psychological disorder. There has also been an increase in health problems, suicides and also fragging (murder of a senior officer by a junior). And those engaged in live action (insurgency, terrorism) suffer from these problems the most. The Indian Army has reported around 120 suicide and fragging cases in 2006, but ironically, they lost only 72 while fighting militants! The figure for suicides is about 100 suicides yearly. Taking into account the numbers – 11-lakh strong Indian Army – it translates into a rate of 9 suicides per 100,000.
The Indian Police and para-military forces also suffer from this malaise of suicide but no statistics were available on the net for India.
A comparison with America
Interestingly, suicides are higher in the American Army as compared to the Indian Army. In fact the US Army suicide rate has gone up and is now the highest ever in the last 26 years. When it comes to figures, there were 99 confirmed suicides among active duty soldiers in the US Army in 2006, up from 88 the previous year (rates have gone up after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) These figures are high considering that there are just about half a million American troops in active service and the rate of suicide works out to be 17.3 per 100,000. The average rate in earlier years had been around 12.3 per 100,000 in the US Army.
Some causes of going over the edge
High levels of stress can cause people to feel suicidal, but rage and frustration turned outwards can result in assault on others. In the army, juniors can develop hatred for a senior officer and as weapons are freely available this kind of situation can result in homicide. Psychologists believe that one of the reasons why soldiers (there are cases in the police force too) kill their superiors (fragging) is when they feel a strong sense “harassment and humiliation,” which usually comes in addition to the other stressors. A feeling of damage to the ego or a sense of frustration if leave is denied (and needed due to a family emergency) are the reasons given most of the time by the killers. What finally drives a soldier over the edge to commit murder is most of the time cruelty by a senior. If these cases are rising in the Army or in any other security force it is a great cause for worry because it means the force is falling short of true leaders. Tough conditions will always exist for those on the field, but a good leader manages to alleviate stress, not increase it.
When it comes to suicide, the reasons are more complex. While high anxiety and insecurity and lack of rest add to the problem…it is said that one of the main precipitators is when a soldier feels that the cause he is fighting for is meaningless. A soldier or a policeman can take stress better if he believes in his “cause.” Cases of suicide and fragging were unusual during the first and second world wars and it is thought that this is because the solders believed in a higher cause.
The Army suicide rate as compared to the national average
What I find a paradox is that the Army suicide rates do not seem to be higher than the suicide rate in the general population even though soldiers suffer from high stress. For example, the rate of 9 suicides per 100,000 population in the Indian Army is lower than the national suicide rate for men in the general population in India, which is 12.2 per 100,000 (WHO statistics). Even this 12.2 figure could be grossly underestimated. For one thing, the national statistics are for 1998 and the suicide rate could possibly be higher now, but more important, suicides in India are said to be under-reported. Some believe them to be at least three times more than they actually are. An article on an Indian Psychiatry site has suggested that suicide data from police records is not accurate as families of suicide victims usually do not report it as a suicide to avoid police investigation. Suicides in the Army are difficult to hide.
There is a similarity with the United States as well. The rate of suicide in the American population (2005: 17.7 for males) is about the same as that of the US Army but only now, after Afghanistan. Before Afghanistan, the suicide rate of the US Army was much lower than that of the general population, at 12.3.
This means that suicide rates of the general population are generally significantly higher than that of the Army, at least for India and America. I have not studied the figures for other countries.
However, some studies in the United States has shown that police officers have a higher rate of suicide than the general public, but I could not get any confirmation nor any reliable country-wise statistics.
Why should the suicide rate in the general population be lower?
Assuming that the statistics above are roughly correct, doesn’t it seem strange that the general population is more suicidal than Army personnel? Or perhaps not so strange…some groups may be more vulnerable to suicide than soldiers. But which groups are these?
Well, in this post of mine where I had written about the reasons for suicide, financial loss had emerged as an important factor in men’s suicides. And in another post on why Indians commit suicide, I had mentioned that self-employed people as a group had the highest rate of suicide in India. People in a job like the Army are financially secure and also have a better support system. I think there is a decent support system even amongst cops.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Army and other security personnel are more stressed and anxious than the general population. But soldiers (and I feel the police) in India aren’t committing suicide in the same numbers as the general population. Yes, there maybe plenty of cases of misconduct, high rates of alcoholism, marital and mental breakdowns, and health problems amongst soldiers fighting insurgency and wars, and amongst cops too…but their problems are not driving them to suicide in as large numbers as the general population.
Something could well be wrong with the statistics, and in that case my analysis would be faulty. These are just the thoughts that went through my mind as I studied the figures.
Related Reading: The Suicide rates of the World
Some ways to help people cope with depression
Why Indians commit suicide
The right time to see a psychiatrist
One reason for suicide – social rejection
Euthanasia may be illegal but it’s popular