SINGAPORE - About 500 men a year have been exempted from National Service (NS) for the last three years due to mental health problems, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament on Thursday.
Only those who are assessed by a board of professionals to be able to perform their NS duties are enlisted, he assured.
Dr Ng was responding to Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC)'s question on the strategies Mindef used to screen for mental health disorders in recruits. Prof Fatimah Lateef's question comes on the back of a coroner's findings on Private Ganesh Pillay Magindren's death, who took his own life last July.
Pte Ganesh was found dead at the foot of his Sengkang condominium. The full-time national serviceman was seeing a psychiatrist regularly for schizophrenia.
On Thursday, Dr Ng said: "The spectrum of mental health disorders... can vary considerably in severity."
He added: "For the affected individual, if he has a mental health condition, that condition may not be static. It could worsen or improve over time."
As such, Mindef takes into account this variability of conditions in an individual over time.
Before enlistment, all pre-enlistees are screened by medical officers for psychiatric, behavioural and adjustment problems. Those with "severe mental illnesses" will be exempted from NS, he said.
This is decided by a specialist medical board, not a single doctor, he later added.
As for servicemen with mental health disorders and who have been enlisted, he said his ministry will ensure they pose no risk to themselves and those around them.
Only their commanders and medical officers who monitor their progress are notified about their conditions, he said, to protect their confidentiality.
If there is any doubt about whether a serviceman can perform his duties, the individual will be assessed by psychiatrists once more. He could then be redeployed to a more suitable vocation, or excused from his NS duties.
Besides this, trainees in the Officer Cadet School or Specialist Cadet School undergo basic counselling and mental health awareness programmes, he said. "This is to help our commanders better identify fellow soldiers with mental health issues."
In addition, soldiers with mental health issues can be referred to a psychological care centre. There is also a 24-hour SAF counselling hotline available to soldiers.
"Our approach towards NSmen with mental health disorders ensures that they are not discriminated against or stigmatised if they are able to perform NS safely," he said. "Under our present regime, there have been many NSmen with mental health disorders who have completed their NS duties well."