From ‘Coroner rules out foul play in NSF’s death’, 12 April 2014, article in CNA
A Coroner’s report has ruled out foul play in the death of a 22-year-old man who was serving national service last year. Full-time national serviceman (NSF) Pte Ganesh Pillay – who has schizophrenia – was found dead at the foot of his condominium in Sengkang last July.
His father has raised concerns over how the army deals with soldiers with mental conditions. The Coroner’s Court heard that Pte Ganesh’s supervisor did not know the full extent – and effects – of schizophrenia.
…Pte Ganesh was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 18. But his father said his son’s condition had stabilised with medication. He said: “When the army told him that he cannot be exempted, but he will be downgraded to PES E, I was rest assured that the army will take care of him. I trusted the army.
“In fact, I trusted that much to the very last day. I still have that trust, until the time he died, then I start to figure out what went wrong.” On the day Pte Ganesh died, he was unwell and had returned home from camp.
His supervisor — Captain Jessie Goh — had earlier issued Pte Ganesh with 14 extra duties as punishment for, among other things, unsatisfactory work and improper bearing. Mr Reganathan said Captain Goh seemed oblivious to his son’s condition.
In a similar suicide case in 1979, Cpl Tan Cheng Eyong leapt to his death 2 days after consultation with a camp psychiatrist. He had obsessive-compulsive neurosis and ‘reactive depression’, a disorder reportedly triggered by his O Level exams. A 1987 report on the incidence of mental illness among NSmen revealed that between 400 and 500 required psychiatric help each year, of which 10 to 15% suffered from schizophrenia, 30-35% with ‘stress related conditions’ and the rest from ‘depression, anxiety, HOMOSEXUALITY and various other NEUROSES’. What was less reported in the 80′s was the phenomenon known as ‘possession-trance’, (40 cases referred to Woodbridge from 1979 to 1981) where the authors of a study published in 1986 discussed the effect of a stressful life event like NS on this ‘hysterical dissociation’. I would expect the rates of mental illness to be higher today, though it’s unlikely that there are any official statistics on this matter. Most boys escape NS unscathed of course, but some, like Ganesh, may have flown way over the cuckoo’s nest.
Ex military psychiatrist and colonel Ang Yong Guan identified schizophrenia as the MOST COMMON psychotic illness among NSmen, with only a minority of those diagnosed able to qualify to work in non-combat positions provided their disease was under control. 19 year old Julius Chan, today a peer specialist dealing with mental patients, wanted to pursue priesthood and avoid NS. He ‘prayed a lot, asking God to take away this time’ for him, went too far, suffered a schizoid breakdown and was eventually exempted from conscription. The most well known case of an NSman going berserk is Dave Teo, who went AWOL with a SAR21 rifle and ammo after his girlfriend broke up with him and eventually jailed for 9 years. He was suffering from behavioral problems including suicidal thoughts and depression, and also ‘began to HEAR VOICES of people who were not there’, aural hallucinations being one of the signs of schizophrenia. Thankfully, no one was massacred in Orchard Road where Dave was caught.
Then there are the other neurological diseases. Jonathan Lim Chong Ping, who drowned in the Singapore River over Christmas in 2013, had sought treatment for ‘adjustment disorder’ while serving NS. Harmoko Julianus, 22, was suffering a relapse of bipolar disorder when he made a bomb hoax at the British embassy and only exempted from NS after the incident. Maybe the best management of mental disorders in young men is not helplines or risperidone, but a PES F status, whereby you’re medically unfit for any kind of service altogether.
Andy Ho of ST believes that NS, which takes the schizophrenic away from his family, stigmatises and punishes him for symptoms of his illness, should be exempted altogether (Exempt these young men from NS, 13 April 2014, Sunday Times). In any case, is clerical work so important that we need to desperately fill these vocations with boys with mental illness if we have to? What’s the value of fulfilling NS obligations for the sake of it if they don’t do anything productive or in Ganesh’s case, make things worse?
It is not clear when exactly an 18 year old Ganesh became schizophrenic, but only a study examining the onset of schizophrenia among Singaporean men will provide some insight as to whether the regimental rigours of NS has anything to do with aggravating the disease, adjusting for other factors such as family history. Any researcher, however, would be MAD to even propose such a hypothesis for a complex disorder, one that happens to manifest around the same time as NS enlistment. Also, we don’t have a base of non-enlisted men to compare to since NS is mandatory. A 1968 study by Steinberg and Durrell, however, showed a striking increase in admissions for schizophrenia among men joining the US Army, especially within the first month. Those include men who WILLINGLY signed up for war.
What’s unacceptable here is that for such a prevalent mental disorder among NSmen, someone of the rank of Captain would have totally no clue about what schizophrenia means. It doesn’t help that society also often downplays the term ‘schizophrenic’ as reference to anything that’s ‘unpredictable’ or mixes it up with ‘multiple/split personality’. Singapore’s Urbanism has been described as ‘schizophrenic’, and artist David Chan calls his exhibition about humans with animal heads ‘Hybrid Society: Schizophrenia‘. It has also been misused to describe spouses, friends or bosses who are ‘extremely temperamental’. To an uninformed layperson like Jessie Goh, a ‘schizo’ attack may not be any more severe than someone throwing a really bad tantrum.
One of the extras dished out to Ganesh was for ‘failure to sign a logbook’. To lash out 14 extras on a human being, schizophrenic or not, is also a sign of mental disturbance, that of a sadistic psychopath. And there are probably more of these in the military than people hearing voices and thinking of killing themselves. The commando head dunker, the dog abuser, or the encik who insults your mother. Maybe all these nuts should get their heads checked as well.