SINGAPORE - About 500 men a year have been exempted from national service for the last three years due to mental health problems, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.
This forms more than 2 per cent of around 24,500 servicemen who enter the armed forces, police and civil defence every year.
Only those who are assessed by a board of professionals to be able to perform their NS duties are enlisted, he said.
He was responding to Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC), who had asked about Mindef's screening of mental health disorders in recruits.
Her question comes on the back of a coroner's findings on the death of Private Ganesh Pillay Magindren, who took his own life last July.
Pte Ganesh was found dead at the foot of his Sengkang condominium. The full-time national serviceman had been seeing a psychiatrist regularly for schizophrenia.
The coroner pointed out several lapses, such as how the medical officer at Pte Ganesh's unit had not been informed of his condition.
Yesterday, Dr Ng said, without referring to the incident: "The spectrum of mental health disorders... can vary considerably in severity.
"For the affected individual, if he has a mental health condition, that condition may not be static. It could worsen or improve over time."
As a result, Mindef takes into account different conditions in an individual over time.
For soldiers with mental health disorders and who have been enlisted, he said his ministry will ensure they pose no risk to themselves or those around them.
Only commanders and medical officers who monitor their progress are notified about their conditions, he said, to protect their confidentiality.
If there is any doubt about whether a serviceman can perform his duties, he will be assessed by psychiatrists again, he said.
He could then be redeployed to a more suitable vocation, or excused from his NS duties.
Besides this, trainees in the Officer Cadet School or Specialist Cadet School undergo basic counselling and mental health awareness programmes, he said.
"This is to help our commanders better identify fellow soldiers with mental health issues."
In addition, soldiers with mental health issues can be referred to a psychological care centre. There is also a 24-hour counselling hotline.
"Our approach towards NSmen with mental health disorders ensures that they are not discriminated against or stigmatised if they are able to perform NS safely," he said. "Under our present regime, there have been many NSmen with mental health disorders who have completed their NS duties well."
This article was first published on May 30, 2014.
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