Dad of autistic NSman says: Counsellor saved him

Distraught, he locked himself in the toilet and phoned his mother.

In between sobs, he then told her how he was being bullied by his peers and superiors and that he was unable to cope with his duties in the army.

But more worryingly, he threatened to end his life, prompting his parents to bring his condition to the attention of his superiors and the army.

Bryan (not his real name) has Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism.

He was enlisted as a full-time national serviceman (NSF) in 2012, but after a difficult year, he was exempted from the service in March last year.

Last week, his father wrote in to The New Paper after reading about Private (Pte) Ganesh Pillay Magindren, 23, the NSF who was found dead at the foot of his Sengkang condominium last July. (See report right, below.)

"I wanted to share that what my son went through was similar to Pte Ganesh," he told TNP in a subsequent phone interview.

Bryan's father first noticed unusual behaviour in his son in kindergarten.

"I thought something was wrong with him when he would just sit there and not interact with other children," he said.

Bryan was taken to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with Asperger's, said the father.

"He's not able to socialise normally, has trouble articulating and has compulsive behaviours.

"But other than that, he was normal. He's not mad. He even took his A levels and did well," he said.

The father said he had initially encouraged his son to go through national service.

"Bryan was originally very excited to be enlisting. I also thought it would be an opportunity for him to become more independent and learn how to be around people," he said.

FIT FOR ADMINISTRATIVE DUTIES

Bryan was given the Physical Employment Status (PES) E, which meant he was fit for administrative duties and was required to go through only a month-long basic military training (BMT) course.

"Everything was fine during his BMT and he was getting used to being in the army. But things changed when he was posted to his unit as a storeman.

"His superior kept finding fault and labelled him as lazy and stupid. She also regularly punished him with weekend confinement barely two months into his posting," said the father.

His fellow army mates also bullied and made fun of him, said the father.

"They didn't understand his mental condition and why he behaved differently from a normal person," he said.

His only child would return home depressed and grouchy.

"Bryan became afraid to return to camp. He also had terrible mood swings and nightmares where he would wake up screaming," he said.

The final straw came when Bryan told his parents about his suicidal thoughts.

"I couldn't stand seeing him in that state. As parents, we had to do something," he said.

Bryan's parents complained to the Military Medicine Institute and Bryan was referred to a psychiatrist from the Psychological Care Centre and a counsellor.

Meanwhile, his parents engaged a private psychiatrist.

"Things improved for a while. He became more relaxed and the suicidal thoughts went away," he said.

ALLEGED MISTREATMENT

But as the alleged mistreatment by Bryan's superiors and peers continued, his condition regressed.

"My son was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown when he was ostracised and alienated in camp after his condition came to light. Not even the counselling could help him any more," said the father.

And just as Bryan's parents were feeling helpless, a medical review was called and Bryan was given the lowest PES status, PES F, which exempted him from national service, in March last year.

"We're very lucky that he managed to get the right attention and help before something drastic happened.

"That said, there is a system to help these mentally-ill soldiers. It all depends on the people around them and whether there are any gaps in the system," he said.

The father also commended the military counsellor who helped his son.

"My son would not have kept his sanity and may have done something drastic if not for the counsellor. We are thankful for him," said the father.

Bryan is now pursuing a diploma in psychology at a private institute.

Said his father: "His condition has improved since his discharge and now that he is without the pressures of the army.

About Pte Ganesh

Private (Pte) Ganesh Pillay Magindren, 23, was found dead at the foot of his Sengkang condominium in July last year.

The full-time national serviceman (NSF) was seeing a psychiatrist regularly for schizophrenia.

The day before his death, Captain Jessie Goh had given him 14 days of extra duties for not signing a logbook, reporting late for work and unsatisfactory work performance.

She was the manpower officer at 24th Battalion Singapore Artillery and directly in charge of Pte Ganesh when he was posted there in November 2012. He was assigned to clerical work as an administrative support assistant.

In the inquiry into his death, State Coroner Imran Abdul Hamid said he had died from multiple injuries sustained from a deliberate fall from height and that he had known it would lead to his death.

Mr Imran also said Pte Ganesh's army unit had lapses in managing his mental illness.

An army directive said camps are supposed to keep a medical register of servicemen with psychiatric illnesses. But Khatib Camp did not, the coroner said.

Unit commanders who are in charge of servicemen with psychiatric problems would need to be informed by a letter from the Personnel Management Centre. But Pte Ganesh's unit did not receive any such letter about his condition until a day before his death.

Following the inquiry, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement that it will study the State Coroner's findings carefully to improve and tighten its procedures to ensure better compliance by Singapore Armed Forces units in dealing with soldiers with mental problems.

This article was published on April 21 in The New Paper. Get The New Paper for more stories.

HELPLINES
Samaritans of Singapore (SOS):1800-2214444
Singapore Association for Mental Health:1800-2837019
Sage Counselling Centre:1800-5555555
Care Corner Mandarin Counselling:1800-3535800