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Fragging and suicide in the Army and the general population

December 19, 2008

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
Remember Kargil?
The right time to see a psychiatrist
One reason for suicide – social rejection
Euthanasia may be illegal but it’s popular

19 Comments leave one →
  1. pochp permalink
    December 19, 2008 8:06 am

    So- we must prevent soldiers from hearing or seeing things about anti-war protests and protesters– even if they were right.

    No, I don’t think we need do anything like that. Wars are not started by soldiers anyway. – Nita

  2. Vinod permalink
    December 19, 2008 9:14 am

    Nita, how about considering that perhaps soldiers are mentally tougher than the average Indian man by virtue of their training? Would that go any distance in explaining why suicide rates in the Army can be expected to be lower than that in the civilian society?

    vinod, I have no doubt that the soldiers are mentally tougher. – Nita

  3. December 19, 2008 11:49 am

    Strange !!!

    🙂 – Nita

  4. December 19, 2008 12:45 pm

    i don’t think,the numbers are that accurate…as you said in India it would be higher..

    as for the forces..maybe the fact that they go through a lot of training helps them…

    Vishesh, the tough training and the support of the close community in their force perhaps. – Nita

  5. December 19, 2008 12:45 pm

    I loved the article. Well researched and well organized.
    I do have a query though: How many of these suicides are not genuine suicides and in fact foul play? Is there any transparency in how the army investigates these cases?

    Thanks. And I do not think that there is any significant fudging of suicides in the army. There are usually too many witnesses and being in the army set up I know that very harsh action is taken internally for these kind of things. If anythng, in the army, there is far harsher way of looking at things. Nita

  6. December 19, 2008 1:34 pm

    @ Nita : You know something I have a theory on this one. In the army one has the chance to play sport and to exercise much more than people in “civil” life. This may be the reason why fewer soldiers commit suicide than civilians. Although this may sound a bit naive but I think sports takes a lot of stress away from life. Sedentary life is a cause for stress as well.

    Most cases of ‘fragging’ or suicides in the army I believe are due to leave problems which are faced by lower ranks. I guess a good way around that could be to have a leave policy and not have leave at the total discretion of superior officers alone. Another idea could be to have a fixed number of leaves available which must be given in peace time. I think many suicides in India go unreported so I would not really trust the figures coming out of the “general” population so much.

    Odzer, I don’t think you are far wrong here! I mean, physical exercise is known to help in busting stress. – Nita

  7. December 19, 2008 3:13 pm

    Soldiers are looked after much better than the Police or for that matter those in civilian life.

    And as Odzer points out the facillities are many and available for use. Constant drill, sports, training keeps a soldier physically and mentally fit.

    This would be correct in a peace time scenario or in a non-war zone or family posting base.

    Psychological problems may be more in the forward bases, non-family postings, active insurgency zones or in high altitude zones. Most of the suicide / fragging cases may be in such zones.

    If you compare suicides / fragging cases vis-a-vis the total strength deployed in these zones, then the average could be more alarming.

    Further, officer-soldier relations can turn prickly for no reason. This has to do with the officer – soldier ratio, quality of leadership etc……….

    All institutions have these problems. It depends on whether the authorities are in a denial mode quoting statistical insignificance or are they pro-active on managing what could be a serious and growing problem.

    Thanks Mavin for your thoughtful comments. Yes your point about checking the percentages of suicides just in that group which is fighting is worth taking into account as I guess the rate will be very high! One cannot compare soldiers in peace-time to soldiers in war and those fighting miliants. Army in peace has a fairly relaxed life, much more relaxed than say the police. Now I wish I had thought of saying this! – Nita

  8. pochp permalink
    December 19, 2008 5:06 pm

    I think Odzer is right. Soldiers are seldom bored and almost always stressed, while civilians who have nothing else to think about because they are sedentary– their thoughts always go back to suicide.

  9. December 19, 2008 10:10 pm

    Soldiers are supposed to be more strong mentally because they are trained for adverse situations which a common man never faces. Maybe that is the reason.
    Its due to the long absence of a family life and not there for their family during a crisis that might lead the soldiers to suicides. They have a tough life for sure.

  10. December 19, 2008 11:29 pm

    i think at the end of the day we all are made up of same bones, flesh and blood and soldiers are no exceptions. no matter how mentally or emotionally strong they are but at the end of the day everyone has an urge to be with their loved ones, to spend time with family . and come what it may be nothing can act as a substitute to family love and care. and this longing can eventually take its toll in form of emotional breakdown adversely affecting the health. going for them is tough in any case but i think the pillar of love and care can do wonders for them.

  11. December 20, 2008 10:17 am

    I agree with regards to: a) soldiers are mentally strong as they undergo rigorous training to sustain in hazardous conditions b) soldiers are also humans, and when they are constantly thrown into tough situations, one can loose judgment – emotionally. c) As for civilians – society, needs, expectations and many other reasons can lead one making such tragic decision.

  12. December 20, 2008 10:25 am

    Categorisation is always a bane…

    Human’s after all… whether soldiers or civilians and to judge them all equally will not give a right picture…

    personal views

  13. December 20, 2008 10:34 am

    self-employed people as a group had the highest rate of suicide in India.

    Thatz creepy…

    Few days ago,I was reading on why people would join army..In regard to your article,I guess,suicide rate in army may be less due to them always preoccupied with some sort of activity.In our lives,we deal with people of different strata and we ,knowingly or unknowingly,compare our fortune with others..As human beings,we are always unsatisfied and people who cannot deal with failures in life will find an easy way out by commititng suicide

    But armymen being detached from the normal discourse of society,spends their life in an organization,where there is just a hierarchy based on authority or power.So,maybe they deal with it as they needn’t deal with social life,as we do.Well,I guess,when there is no comparisons,everybody is happy with what they have🙂

    Just my stupid thoughts..lol..I am laughing at what I wrote..nevermind😉

  14. December 20, 2008 11:04 am

    I like this article! Soldiers in the army have a good support group and I think that is one of the reason suicide may be lower among them. And I think Nimmy is kind of right. Constant comparison with other people can actually trigger thoughts of suicide.

    • December 22, 2008 9:59 am

      Thanks all for your comments! I think all of us seem to agree that soldiers are mentally tougher and also mentally prepared for the life they lead. However as Arpit mentions, at the end of it all, they too are human and have a breaking point.

  15. December 26, 2008 4:01 am

    Nita, thanks for rising that topic!

    interestingly, almost at the same time when you wrote this post, I was in Russia where I met my classmate who became an officer and was serving in 3 wars. I asked him many questions about his experiences, I really wanted to understand the whole thing…

    He told me, for example, that he does not understand why so many Americans commit suicide after coming back from the war – apparently it is not the case in Russia, and he knows it for sure. Then he says that people in the situation of war behave very differently from what we /and they themselves can suggest. Like, some people become extremely coward, and the others die to protect someone who was humiliating them some days ago…Amazing storied I heard…

    That sounds very interesting Axinia and I hope you do a post on it! About why more Americans commit suicide, it could possibly be because they feel a lack of a sense of purpose? Or the violence and the life there in too much for the present American generation? I think Russians are used to a harder life. – Nita.

  16. December 27, 2008 1:13 pm

    you are very right, Nita – Russians are used to a harder life, that is exactly what that officer told me (he also met Americal soldiers and knew how they are)… I think I should post on it, but have to get the right mood for this topic.

  17. ruchika permalink
    November 10, 2009 7:19 pm

    hey i really appreciate your efforts towards the paper you have writtent n also, it was intresting to read through the discussion follwoing it.

    i had to ask you in particular that—– which sources are you refering while making a comment on the figures of suicide and Fratricide by indian soldiers.

    Ruchika, please follow the links given in the post. All links are of a different colour so you will be able to click on them. Thanks.

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