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About a fortnight ago, a woman officer of the Indian Army, a Lieutenant shot herself dead in the Command Headquarters in Northern India. This tragic death led to a flood of shocked responses from society. In an interview on a television channel a Brigadier of the Indian Army stated that – 'the officer was suffering from low self-esteem and was being treated for Depression.' A very senior retired lady officer, a doctor, stated that one had to be both physically and mentally strong to cope with the rigours of Army life. Did it imply that the Lieutenant was not mentally strong to cope? She was ‘a brilliant and strong girl’ - said the people who had known her well in the town she had grown up. 'She was a gold medallist' stated her grieving father. No one seemed to pay much attention to her younger brother's words. 'It was Depression - nothing else', he said. Unfortunately only those of us watching with loved ones struggling with Mental Illnesses would have understood. In the frenzy of media reporting no one highlighted the young Lieutenant’s battle with Depression. It was assumed that Suicide was the natural culmination of Depression.
To watch their dearly loved daughter spiralling down into a deep Depression must not have been easy for the Lieutenant’s family. Living with someone with Depression takes its own emotional toll. And finally to hear the one you loved deeply being spoken of just as someone with a ‘personality weakness’, ‘low self esteem’, ‘lacking confidence’ is so cruel. The senior officers in the Army interviewed on television attributing such qualities to the late lady Lieutenant showed appalling ignorance and insensitivity. Disregarding the fact that less than a year ago, the same lady had done extremely well in the Training Course in the Army Centre.
Hospitalization and timely help could have made this suicide a preventable tragedy. But then the Military hospitals in India do not have psychiatric wings with ‘beds for women’. Presently the psychiatric wings have beds ‘only for men’. The reason why wives and daughters of personnel in the Armed Forces cannot be hospitalised even when they are in acute condition. If at all a lady officer with a psychiatric condition is hospitalized, which is rare, it is done so in the General Ward of the Family Wing. There are ‘escorts’ that are posted to protect her from self-harm and other actions that result from the disturbed thought processes that occur when one is very ill.
The tragic death of the young lady Lieutenant has led to fiery debates about equality for women in the Armed Forces. That there must be equal opportunities for combat duties in the front and so on. However it is strange no one talks about parity in mental health services by providing crisis intervention centres and hospitalization in mental health facilities when a lady officer, wife or daughter of uniformed personnel is in the throes of acute Depression or severe mental illness. Today many uniformed personnel serve in the borders of our country and many families stay in their villages tending to their piece of land for an additional income. I remember meeting one such mother whose husband would come home once a year, off-duty for his annual vacation. Her daughter struggled with Depression and was often suicidal. She would tell her mother to tie her feet with a strong rope to a pillar before the feelings to kill herself became overpowering. She would stay tied while the mother went out and worked.
Eleven years ago when my daughter sunk into Depression, the good psychiatrist at the Military Hospital told me, “Make sure she is never alone, but be discreet.” I thought then that it was to take care - in case she had the reaction to the medications which she had just started taking. I recall how I trembled within all the while waiting for the unknown. Today with better understanding of this illness when my daughter goes through the debilitating relapses I know why the psychiatrist wanted me to watch over her.