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FEATURE/Taiwan's worrying rise in military suicides

06/16/2024 09:20 AM
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Note: If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the 1925 or 1995 hotlines in Taiwan or such services in other countries for help.
Note: If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the 1925 or 1995 hotlines in Taiwan or such services in other countries for help.

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

In the early hours of May 31, a 24-year-old Private First Class surnamed Yu (于) fell to his death from a Ministry of National Defense (MND) building in downtown Taipei.

Yu's death, reportedly the 15th military suicide in Taiwan this year, is part of a worrying upward trend.

The number of servicemen who have taken their own lives in the first six months of 2024 has already surpassed the annual average of around 15 from 2017 to 2023, with some attributing the rise to escalating cross-Taiwan Strait tensions.

Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense. CNA file photo
Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense. CNA file photo

Another oft-speculated explanation is that from Jan. 1, Taiwan's compulsory military for men, which was shortened to four months in 2013, has been returned to one year in light of the threat from China.

However, Chen Pi-e (陳碧娥), founder of the Association of Human Rights for Military Personnel, told CNA that she believes workload, not service length, is a more likely source of stress for grassroots military personnel.

The number of troops has plummeted from around half a million in 2001 to around 160,000 today, meaning fewer recruits are left with more responsibilities.

Moreover, Chen said, Taiwan's dwindling birthrate has also seen the military accept "substandard" recruits.

"There is insufficient manpower at the grassroots level within Taiwan's military. Compared with a few decades ago, one serviceman now has to take on many positions," Chen said.

"Higher pressure, combined with recruits who already have a lot of problems, it is only logical that the number of suicides is rising," Chen said, noting that many recruits are either psychologically unfit or join the military as a last resort due to financial troubles.

Lethal means of self-harm

According to Lo Shih-mao (羅時茂), a psychiatrist from the military-run Tri-Service General Hospital's Beitou Branch in Taipei, factors not exclusive to those in the armed forces, including bereavement and relationship issues, can lead to someone choosing to take their own life.

Young, newly enlisted service members and those who have difficulty readjusting following deployment, as well as those with mental health issues may also be more at risk, Lo said.

However, the fact that soldiers have access to lethal weapons increases the chances of an act of self-harm becoming fatal, Lo noted.

The relatively closed environment within the military also made it more likely to see "suicide clusters," Lo said.

Over the years, the MND has repeatedly insisted that the suicide rate among Taiwanese soldiers is relatively lower than the general population and the U.S. military.

Soldiers march during an exercise in this CNA file photo
Soldiers march during an exercise in this CNA file photo
Women in the military engage in the military exercise in this CNA file photo
Women in the military engage in the military exercise in this CNA file photo

During a legislative session in 2021, then Vice Defense Minister Wang Shin-lung (王信龍) said the suicide rate among military personnel was around 7.9 per 100,000 persons, while the average suicide rate for Taiwan's population was 13.2 per 100,000 persons.

But in late March, then Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) admitted that suicides within the nation's armed forces were indeed "on the rise."

He also said these incidents are "regrettable" and pledged to enhance military counseling capabilities to meet the rising needs in this area.

Lack of Professional Counsellors

Opposition Kuomintang lawmaker Hsu Chiao-hsin (徐巧芯) and ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislative caucus secretary-general Wu Szu-yao (吳思瑤) have both warned that the MND has been in serious lack of mental health counselors.

According to data provided by Wu, among the total of 150-plus suicide/attempted suicide cases within the military between 2019 to 2023, only 11 of them were previously on the MND's counseling list.

This means that as high as 93 percent of those who should be on the watchlist were not.

A doctor consults his patient over the phone in this CNA file photo
A doctor consults his patient over the phone in this CNA file photo

Also, among the 99 military personnel who died of suicide during the same time frame, only five of them were previously on the MND's counseling list.

"These numbers show that the suicide prevention mechanism of the armed forces is not working," Wu told at an April 24 legislative session.

Her DPP colleague Hung Sun-han (洪申翰) also noted that the military has only around 400 military counselors.

This means that roughly one counselor has to meet the needs of 400 soldiers, Hung said.

Meanwhile, only 69 were certified counselors, according to Wu.

With Taiwan extending compulsory military service to one year starting 2024, the number of troops is expected to grow to 260,000 by 2029, meaning the military will need to add at least 300 more counselors just to maintain the existing counselor-soldier ratio.

In response, Chiu said that the military will meet with other agencies and experts in the field to determine how many more counselors it needs to hire to meet the needs of its troops.

"It is of course our wish to have as many counselors as possible," the then-defense chief said during the same legislative session.

Soldiers practice firing their pistol during a military exercise in this CNA file photo
Soldiers practice firing their pistol during a military exercise in this CNA file photo
Military officers train together during an exercise in this CNA file photo
Military officers train together during an exercise in this CNA file photo

Asked to comment on the lack of military counselor issue, Chen told CNA the root of the problem goes back to the lack of enough manpower within the armed forces.

The military's short-of-hands means that the chief counselor of a grassroots military unit, whose primary job is supposedly soldiers' mental health, has to be responsible for other jobs including political warfare, military promotion and other tasks given by his or her superiors.

"They are too busy to focus on all the jobs on their hands and do not have the time nor the professional skills required to take care of the troops' mental health," she said.

She urged the MND to take the situation seriously and resolve the problem once and for all or the mental health issue will continue to trouble Taiwan's military in decades to come.

The MND's response

According to the MND, most military personnel who tried to harm him- or herself so far in 2024 did so due to family reasons, financial debts, or even pessimism.

To prevent self-harm in the armed forces, the MND said it has continued to enhance mental health education among military personnel.

Tri-Service General Hospital's Beitou Branch has arranged a total of 82 workshops and lecturers on suicide prevention to tour military units around the country this year, the MND said.

Military personnel fire their rifles during an exercise in this CNA file photo
Military personnel fire their rifles during an exercise in this CNA file photo

The military is also making sure military personnel know where to ask for help in case of needs, including by working with civilian counseling organizations, to provide mental health counseling services, the MND added.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the 1925 or 1995 hotlines in Taiwan or such services in other countries for help.

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