Do more for servicemen with mental health issues, say experts

Do more for servicemen with mental health issues, say experts
Pte Ganesh had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but the medical officer where he was posted was not informed of this.

SINGAPORE - More can be done to monitor and support national servicemen with mental health issues, according to two experts who used to work with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

These include fighting the stigma attached to such illnesses, raising awareness about mental health and having more in-camp psychiatrists.

Earlier this week, State Coroner Imran Abdul Hamid delivered his findings on the death of Private Ganesh Pillay Magindren, who was found at the foot of his Sengkang condominium last July.

The 23-year-old had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which distorts a person's thoughts and emotions, causing him to lose touch with reality.

The coroner pointed out several lapses, such as how the medical officer at the unit where Pte Ganesh was posted had not been informed of his condition.

Captain Jessie Goh, the officer in charge of Pte Ganesh, also did not do any research into schizophrenia.

In response to Straits Times queries, Mindef pointed to a previous report on how it screens all servicemen before enlistment and assigns them a Physical Employment Status (PES) grade. Those with medical conditions, including mental health ones, may be assigned a lower grade.

The grades range from A - fit for all combat vocations - to F, which exempts the person from national service. Pte Ganesh, who enlisted in October 2012, was given the E9L9 grade, the second lowest, because of his illness.

He became an administrative assistant in the army.

Mindef highlighted how it has a comprehensive system to track its soldiers' well-being.

Interviews are conducted by commanders every few months to find out how full-time national servicemen (NSFs) are adjusting. Some commanders are also taught counselling skills. Soldiers with issues may be then referred to medical officers, counsellors, psychologists or psychiatrists in the SAF. There is also a 24-hour SAF counselling hotline.

Dr Christopher Cheok, who was formerly head of psychiatry at SAF between 2003 and 2009, pointed out a "weak" link in the chain. There is a lack of awareness about mental health issues among junior commanders such as NSF officers and specialists, said the senior consultant, who now leads the psychological medicine department at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

"They may not understand or be equipped to deal with mental illnesses," he said, calling for more training workshops to be held.

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