Support for new recruits who need more help in adjusting to life in the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) has been strengthened since the suicide death of full-time national servicemen (NSF) Muhammad Ahad Lone.
State Coroner ruled the 18-year old Singaporean’s death as a deliberate act of suicide. He was found dead at the foot of Block 1A Pine Grove on 7 April 018, dressed in his SCDF trousers
Mr Ahad had become a Singapore citizen in 2009 but returned to Pakistan in 2012 with his family. In 2018, he came back to Singapore on his own to fulfil his NS obligations but reported feeling lonely, had no close friends, and suffered from insomnia.
Following his untimely death, an inquiry by the state coroner revealed that “several dedicated commanders at the SCDF’s National Service Training Institute (NSTI) regularly give up their personal time to interact with the recruits”.
The findings, which were revealed on 20 November, show also that Mr Ahad’s commanding officers took appropriate steps to ensure his well-being within the current framework, the coroner noting that there was no lase in the discharge of their duty to the serviceman.
She said, “While the causal stressors were found to be related to camp, there was no evidence to suggest that Ahad was bullied at camp.”
“When he was identified to be a suicide risk, he was provided timely and appropriate treatment,” she added.
In outlining Mr Ahad’s medical history, the coroner noted that Mr Ahad had filled out a questionnaire on his first day of enlistment in which he stated he tried to harm himself and attempt suicide and that he had been thinking of doing it.
Mr Ahad was immediately interviewed by the platoon commanders but had said he already overcame these issues prior to enlistment and declined to speak to an orientation officer.
In the following days, Mr Ahad reported experiencing various ailments from insomnia to headaches and gastroenteritis. He took many medical leaves because of that and was constantly on light duty.
He had also confided in a doctor that he was contemplating suicide. Mr Ahad was immediately taken to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in late March 28. There, he told the doctor that he was unable to cope with the physical training in NS and admitting to taking MCs in order to be excused from his duties.
While finding no lapses in duties of the commanding officers, the coroner noted that not all recruits will exhibit overt signs of distress or disorders like depressing, adding that it would take a trained professional to identify and diagnose such conditions.
Therefore, she suggested that it is “desirable to have professional counsellors present to support the recruits who face mental health issues”.
As such, the State Coroner recommended that “SCDF undertakes a review of its structure and protocols and implements evidence-based measures, including, but not limited to, the appointment of trained mental health professionals to each SCDF camp”.
Stronger measures already in place, says SCDF
In response to queries, SCDF countered the coroner’s findings, noting that SCDF does already have an in-house psychological unit and uniformed officers who are trained in mental health issues and provide support in mental health and resilience for all staff and officers of the SCDF, including NS recruits.
Since Mr Ahad’s death, SCDF said it has implemented measures such as having additional supervision and support for recruits during their assessments. Previously, the interviews are conducted by the assigned NSF Platoon Commander (PC). Now, the Deputy PC will also be present. The older regular officer can assume “the nurturing role of a father figure” said SCDF.
Additionally, the interviews are now conducted in civilian attire to give a less regimented setting so that recruits can feel more comfortable to open up about any issues they might be having.
Another measure is the extra support given to NS recruits who do not have family support in Singapore, like Mr Ahad whose family are all in Pakistan. These recruits will be assigned a buddy who can speak the same language or is in the same ethnic group. On top of that, recruits with financial difficulties will also be offered accommodation within the cam over weekends and public holidays.
As for psychological support, SCDF told TODAY that their orientation officers have been trained in counselling. Distressed NS recruits have to undergo a mandatory assessment by psychologists from the Emergency Behavioural Sciences and Care (EBSC) unit, made up of psychologists and uniformed officers.
During orientation, one of these officers will be designated as an orientation officer whose role it is to ensure that the recruits are adjusting well to NS.
“The Orientation Officer is based at the National Service Training Institute, where he or she is able to provide the first level of counselling support to recruits, and works closely with the psychologists in doing so,” the SCDF said.
There is also a resilience program in place to help recruits better adapt to their new environment. The programme teaches recruits psychological resilience skills to help them manage challenges they may face as emergency rescuers. The programme is supported by instructors and supervisors in the training institute and frontline units.
“They also undergo a vocational selection test to assess their suitability and job-fit for fire and rescue operations before their deployment to frontline units at the end of their basic training,” added the SCDF.
Even with all that, the SCDF said it will be studying the state coroner’s recommendations carefully.
Better mental health care for servicemen
The conversation about mental health care for servicemen has been brewing, especially with vocal voices like Ms Carena Tan who has been very outspoken about the lack of expertise within the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SCDF in handling servicemen with mental health issues.
A single mother of two, Ms Tan slammed MINDEF for not having the expertise to diagnose or deal with people with mental problems in her speech at the NO CECA, NO 6.9 Million People” rally on 3 November at Hong Lim Park.
She took to the stage at the rally to talk about the challenges her elder son, Ian Loh, faced during his time in NS and SCDF and the effects it has had on him and the family since. Ian had gotten into drugs as a means of escaping NS and spent time in drug rehabilitation centres.
Ms Tan explained that when Ian expressed suicidal tendencies, the treatment he received was to be chained to the bed on two different occasions for more than a month with a light shining on him. Ms Tan said this was akin to “mind-rape”.
When Ian was finally discharged from civil defence, his mother said he was “totally broken”.
Ms Tan is campaigning for NS to be made voluntary instead of compulsory and is fighting for better mental health care support within MINDEF and SCDF for its servicemen.