'SAF should take ownership of its mentally ill soldiers'

'SAF should take ownership of its mentally ill soldiers'

SINGAPORE - Handling a mentally ill soldier is not easy.

They require proper attention and a suitable working environment for them to thrive, said psychiatrists contacted by The New Paper. For this to happen, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has to take ownership of its soldiers, Dr Ang Yong Guan said.

Dr Ang, who is in private practice, was the head of the Psychological Care Centre (PCC) at the Military Medicine Institute during his 23 years with the SAF from 1986 to 2003.

He said that of his 4,500 patients, there are fewer than 10 cases of full-time national servicemen (NSF).

"I forward each NSF's case to the SAF. I believe the organisation should be responsible for its own soldiers," he said.

But he thinks that the majority of these cases do not get picked up.

"(When I was at PCC) I always made it a point to monitor those soldiers who had severe mental illnesses. I would even call their private psychiatrists to find out more.

"Only if the organisation's leaders are committed to monitoring and helping these patients can they be given the right attention and help," Dr Ang said.

Consultant psychiatrist Ken Ung of Adam Road Medical Centre said that when a soldier is found to be mentally ill, steps should be taken to ensure he is placed in a suitable working environment.

Dr Ung, who sees about 30 to 50 cases of NSFs a month, said that superiors and colleagues should also understand that problematic soldiers may not always be trying to play the system.


"There are cases where the superiors are very understanding and sympathetic towards their condition and always willing to listen to them, and (the patients) thrive," he said.

But those who had difficult bosses could lead to a downward spiral of the soldier's condition, he said.

"I've had such patients who became more and more depressed, constantly had nightmares. Parents would complain about their behaviour and some even had suicidal thoughts," he said.

Superiors should give their subordinates the benefit of the doubt, said Dr Ung, adding that they should be proactive and take the time to find out if their soldiers are all right.

"The SAF is a microcosm of society. It's inevitable that you will get soldiers who are mentally ill. So you should learn how to handle and manage them."

The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) said in a statement on Tuesday 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 12 in The New Paper.

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

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