Give mental health a chance

A view of the day care centre the day after a mass shooting in tambon Uthai Sawan in Na Klang district of Nong Bua Lam Phu province on Oct 7, 2022. (Reuters photo)

A string of mass shootings by officers in recent years may involve many factors, but they highlight the need for an improvement in mental health services, experts say, following the nursery massacre in Nong Bua Lam Phu’s Na Klang district that left 36 people dead, mostly young children, and others injured.

The shocking incident took place on Oct 6, when a former police officer, 34, carried out a gun and knife attack, then killed himself. He had been arrested for drug use and fired from the force. Police believed he committed the crime under the influence of narcotics, but an autopsy found he did not take drugs within 72 hours prior the slaughter.

Pol Gen Damrongsak Kittiprapas, the new national police chief, told the media on Oct 7 that an initial investigation found the perpetrator was stressed after he quarrelled with his wife, coupled with unemployment. He said there was no evidence of mental illness because he appeared normal in court.

“Following a wave of mass shootings, we have hardly seen any change in the police force and military, where officers work in an unfavourable environment. It is fraught with corruption, connection and shady business,” said Rangsiman Rome, an MP and spokesperson for the Move Forward Party, in a press briefing.

He said while an offender cannot deny responsibility, police and military reform must happen to avert recurrent crime. His proposals include taking care of officers and lifting unfair burdens off them, such as requiring them to pay for guns and to serve senior officers.

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“If they leave the force, follow up to see whether they can fit in society. If need be, provide counselling and treatment.”

In recent years, the mental health of security personnel has been in the spotlight. Last month, a mentally ill soldier shot two colleagues and wounded another at an army college in Bangkok. In June last year, a deranged former soldier killed a convenience store employee and a patient at a coronavirus field hospital in Pathum Thani.

Still, they were smaller in scale compared to the tragic mass shooting in Nakhon Ratchasima in February 2020, when a soldier killed 29 people and wounded many others in a fit over a housing deal with his commanding officer. He opened fire on a house and broke into an army camp before going to a shopping mall. Finally, he was shot dead by commandos.

“Police officers suffer from stress because they train and work in a top-down culture, but under tight resources. For example, they must pay for guns and use insufficient allowance for carrying out duties. Also, they aren’t properly screened for mental health issues,” Pol Lt Col Krisanaphong Poothakool, an associate professor in criminology at Rangsit University, said in a forum.

“There are not enough psychiatrists and psychologists. I think not every police officer passes the mental health test. In this case, the perpetrator was sacked from the service for drugs. Besides professional and personal stress, loss of social status and stigma put further pressure on him. He targeted young children because they were vulnerable. The high death toll showed how hostile he felt.”

Pol Lt Col Krisanaphong Poothakool, associate professor in criminology at Rangsit University. Photo courtesy of Rangsit University

Early this year, two cops in Bangkok shot themselves dead. Pol Maj Gen Yingyos Thepjamnong, a spokesperson for the police force, said 443 police officers committed suicide from 2008-2021 due to health problems (129), followed by other reasons, such as family, debt and work. He wants to ensure they receive physical and mental health checkups every year.

Still, the number of police officers who have access to mental health services is relatively low. The police force has launched the “Depress We Care” campaign to offer mental health support via Facebook and a hotline. In 2021, of 2,125 clients, most were the general members (1,965), and the rest were police officers and their families.

Pol Lt Col Krisanaphong said those who seek mental health support make up only a small proportion of over 200,000 police officers because help-seeking carries the stigma of mental illness. In fact, people each have different ways to cope with their emotions. Some may be unaware of their own stress until they burst.

“A proactive approach to mental health screening is needed,” he said.

Government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri announced that measures will be taken to tackle drug abuse, gun violence, rehabilitation and mental health issues. Patients will be screened for serious mental illnesses with a high risk of violence and treated in centres. Mental health clinics will be set up in schools, business establishments of over 100 workers and agencies involving weapons.

However, Thailand is facing a shortage of mental health professionals. According to the Ministry of Public Health, the number of mentally ill patients nearly doubled from 1.3 to 2.3 million from 2015-2021. Yet, there are only 845 psychiatrists and 1,037 psychologists. A report on public health resources shows there are no psychologists in six provinces, including Nong Bua Lam Phu.

Asst Prof Nattasuda Taephant, dean of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Psychology, said mass shootings highlight the need for an improvement in mental health support for risk groups, especially those who own guns or abuse drugs, because research shows officers experience burnout syndrome.

“A high-pressure and low-resource work environment can impact mental health,” she told a forum.

She said mental health services must be expanded to prevent full-blown violence. Currently, psychiatrists are expected to screen scores of cases in an hour, not to mention psychotherapy. Meanwhile, the stigma of mental illness should be overcome to increase access to mental health services and timely treatment.

“Violence doesn’t happen out of the blue, but it is a reflection of our society. It must be fully addressed,” she said.