Series on schizophrenia 4: What happens in the military

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Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament yesterday that NS men with mental health disorders are monitored during their two-year stint.

If there are doubts about an NSman’s safety, or his capabilities, he will be reassessed by psychiatrists. He may then be redeployed to a suitable vocation or excused from NS duties, said Ng.

The Independent Singapore spoke to Dr Ang Yong Guan, an ex-Singapore Armed Forces psychiatrist, about his experiences with recruits who had mental health problems.

Putting a perspective into the issue, he says:   “Only a small group, like Ganesh Pillay, would have problems coping and would require special assistance all the way.”

Ganesh was the boy who took his own life after being asked to do ’14 extras’ by his camp’s officers. He was schizophrenic and the Coroner’s report says his officers could have done more to help him.

“Manpower and medical officers on the ground are supposed to help these boys cope with their duties.

“When I was with the SAF, my team was very active in looking after soldiers with mental illness.”

He gives an example. “We stage mock-up cases. I would drive my medic to a camp’s medical centre and ask him to stimulate a psychiatric case. I would see how the camp medical officer responds.

“That is how I would find out if the camp is following medical directives.”

He reiterates that ground officers looking after a mentally ill soldier must fill up a work performance report (WPR) and provide feedback to the medical officers.

“The moment I diagnose somebody with mental illness, he will get everything on the dot, from treatment to downgrading. As long as you carry a military IC, I would have an obligation to look after you.

“Sometimes we might have to call the recruit’s parents to discuss with them the best course of action. We might consider discharging him, if the work performance report is persistently poor.”

“If the ground officer is given this kind of support, it is unlikely that the recruit would be given excessive punishment, such as in the case of Ganesh.

“I feel that it all comes down to enforcement and ownership. I am in private practice now. Every time I see a national serviceman, I will refer him to the SAF psychiatrist for further action.

“I do not want the SAF to think  Ang Yong Guan, the retired medical officer, is taking up all the SAF cases. I think these recruits are entitled to get free treatment, free medicine and free counselling from the SAF psychiatrists.”

The doctor admits that sometimes his patients return to him. “I have cases of recruits who come back to inform me, ‘doctor, they ask me who am I seeing outside? I say Dr Ang. They say carry on with Dr Ang.’

“Either the SAF psychiatrists are overworked, or do not have enough manpower. I would say go employ more.

“Or they think they have better things to do than to see soldiers.

“But I always insist that these recruits with mental illnesses must see the SAF psychiatrists. This is not a matter of choice.

“The SAF psychiatrist should say, ‘the first choice is me. I will take care of you.’”