The Police Wellbeing program underway in Pudupet, Chennai
The Police Wellbeing program underway in Pudupet, Chennai|Photo credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

Protecting The Protectors

Tamil Nadu’s Police Wellbeing Program seems to be reaping rich dividends as suicide rates in the force drop drastically in a year

Sandhya Ravishankar

Sandhya Ravishankar

It was an open secret for long but in the past three years, suicides amongst police personnel spiked alarmingly. The actual figures are a closely guarded secret but it is whispered within the force that at least 18 personnel took the extreme step in 2018 alone due to work-related stress.

Of course, a number of other suicides have been labelled as due to “family issues”. “We cannot say for sure what caused those suicides but definitely work too has played a part,” said one Inspector who did not wish to be named.

“I have heard of at least 40 suicides in the past one year alone,” he said.

Too Few Bear A Big Burden

Life is not easy for the rank and file of the Tamil Nadu police force. According to a report by non-profit research firm PRS, the state has a sanctioned strength of 1.36 lakh police but vacancies comprise 19% of the total, at 26,054.

Neighbouring states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have adequate strength to allow shift systems for the police, something which Tamil Nadu can ill afford.

As of the National Crime Records Bureau data of 2013, Tamil Nadu has 148 policemen per lakh population. This is only slightly higher than the national ratio of 141 policemen per lakh population.

The United Nations recommends a strength of 222 police personnel per lakh population.

Little wonder then that the force is exhausted pretty much all of the time, with multiple shifts, little time for family and in many cases, severe alcoholism.

The Wellbeing Program

“Hello!” says Inspector Rajeev. “Hi!” reply the trainees. “Hi!” she echoes. “Hello!” they say, many shaking with mirth.

This is how the three-day session of the wellbeing program begins.

The 416 trainers are from the police force themselves, who have themselves undergone a five-day course at NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) in Bengaluru over 12 batches. Each of the 66 training units across all districts of the state is led by a three-member team – an Inspector, a Sub-Inspector and a psychologist, psychiatrist or an academician, depending on the availability in that district.

These trainers then impart their knowledge to batches of police personnel for three days every week – on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“What have I done with his paper?” asks Inspector S Rajeev who is attached to the Pudupet training unit. Her trainees respond – “You have poured water on it.”

“And what have I done with this sheet of paper?” she asks, waving another A4 sheet in the air. “This one has oil,” they say.

Rajeev, whose name changed from Raji to Rajeev thanks to a spelling error in her birth certificate, sets both sheets on fire one after the other.

“What happened with the paper which had oil?” she asks. “It burnt rapidly,” say her trainees. “And the paper with water?” “It burnt slowly,” they say.

“So which paper should we policemen be?” she asks over the microphone. Silence descends over the group as they contemplate the answer to that question.

“We must burn slowly otherwise we will burn out,” answers Rajeev, breaking the silence. “Whenever we are faced with stressful situations, we need to pour water over ourselves and cool ourselves down,” she says.

A few heads nod in agreement.

The structured three-day workshop is intended to identify police personnel at risk of suicide, provide them with professional support and to teach stress management to everyone.

Day One is focused on activity based programs that help everyone define stress and stressors. On the first day itself, those who are suicidal are red flagged and sent to an expert for counselling. “There is a stress reporting questionnaire that they have to fill out – it is modelled on the WHO (World Health Organisation) guidelines. Those who admit to having suicidal thoughts are sent to District Mental Health professionals and four co-ordinators of the program ensure they follow up on the person,” he said.

Day Two is about coping techniques, relaxation and anger management.

Day Three is when the families of the police personnel are invited to attend.

“We conduct role plays to show the nature of the police personnel’s job to the spouse,” said S Mohan of NIMHANS. “We encourage spouses, children and parents of the police personnel to speak openly about expectations and help them find a way to manage the family as well,” he said.

The response, according to Mohan and other trainers, has been cathartic.

Police men and women who had been struggling with loneliness, depression and suicidal thoughts, have opened up to their trainers, the psychologists and have addressed their problems rather than taking the extreme step.

“One lady constable had gone on medical leave and the day before she was to join duty she attempted to hang herself,” said one trainer on condition of anonymity. “She came to work with the rope marks on her neck. Her superior was shocked and immediately sent her to the training session where the psychologist took over and swiftly began counselling her,” he said.

That saved the young constable from attempting suicide again over family issues. The trainer says the young woman is better adjusted now and working well towards complete recovery.

Another young man who had been married for three and a half years received a divorce notice from his wife. Severely depressed, he told his Inspector-trainer that he had suicidal thoughts.

He confessed that he had a drinking problem as well. The team of trainers then took it upon themselves to speak to the young policeman’s uncle and quickly moved him in with the uncle so that he did not attempt suicide. The team of trainers also spoke with the policeman’s wife and put him in professional counselling.

Another young policewoman who had an inter-caste marriage and faced problems as a result, wanted to end her life. She told her trainer who brought her to the station to ensure she was monitored, spoke to the policewoman’s husband and sent them both into counselling.

“At the end of the three-day session, they feel like they have someone who listens to them and is there for them,” said Inspector Rajeev. “That feeling itself is a big boost for their morale.”

The Key Problems

In 2013, a pilot study was conducted in Madurai district to provide counselling for policemen and their families. The report showed that “56% of the police personnel below the rank of sub-inspector, who participated in the five-week training, suffered emotional disturbances.

46% had disorders like insomnia, hypertension or diabetes and 53% experienced high levels of stress.”

But it was only in 2018 that the state government decided that it needed to address the issue of police suicides. A query from the Madras High Court on what the state was doing to alleviate police suicides added the much needed impetus for the program.

Rs 10 crore was allocated in September last year towards a scheme to train police personnel in stress management and suicide prevention.

The recurrent issues that have been brought up by younger police recruits are those relating to self-respect.

“Education demographics have changed,” explained S Suresh, psychologist and a trainer. “Most of the constables who enter the police force are graduates – many are post graduates too. Back then, constables usually had studied only up to the 8th or 10th standard and these people are now SIs and Inspectors. The graduates and post graduates are reporting to superiors who are educationally less qualified than them.

Almost all of the complaints we got pertained to not getting leave. But when we delved deeper, we found that it was not actually about the actual leave process. When these constables, who are more educationally qualified than their superiors ask for leave, they are treated rudely. Some get a scolding. The self-respect and ego of the constables is hurt,” he explained.

Inspector Rajeev said that constables, having come into the force straight from college find the atmosphere of a regimented workplace restrictive. “Most of them feel they had a lot of freedom in college and when faced with a job that demands discipline, they feel like their freedom has been taken away from them,” she said.

“But they also have to earn because most are from very poor families. We explain to them that it is the nature of the police force. We tell them that life will never be smooth always, it will have its ups and downs and they must learn to deal with both.

When they feel restricted, they tend to feel lonely and their emotions run high. Whatever rest time they get is spent on the cell phone, talking to family or friends or using WhatsApp or playing games. They don’t get enough rest and this makes their emotional state even worse,” she said.

Mohan of NIMHANS says there is also a lot of alcoholism in the police force. “They don’t get adequate leave to spend time with family, their working hours are unpredictable, their eating habits are poor and most have sleep disorders,” he said.

“We have initiated separate deaddiction programs for those who are suffering from alcoholism,” he added.

Mohan also described how superior officers from the ranks of Superintendent of Police upwards were taken to NIMHANS in Bengaluru for similar training.

“We also invite them to attend the final day of training so that junior police personnel can tell their grievances directly to their superiors. In fact many JCs (Joint Commissioners) have understood and agreed to give leave to their subordinates on a structured basis,” he said.

Trainers have also put in place a Welfare Committee that looks at the key issues that bog down policemen and women.

This Committee speaks with superiors of those personnel who come to them for help – whether it is stress related, a request for leave or medical insurance claims.

“Earlier medical insurance claims were very less amongst the police force simply because the process was too cumbersome and the insurance companies would not respond adequately,” said Mohan.

“So this Welfare Committee which comprises of the district SP, the district Collector, master trainers as well as representatives of insurance companies, has ensured that insurance claims are fast tracked. In Kancheepuram and Chennai alone in the past three months, there have been 36 claims totalling Rs 1.2 crore! This is a record,” he said.

The Road Ahead

This success story is only half complete. Out of a total of 1.25 lakh police personnel, 64,000 have been trained so far. The pace is slower in Chennai where out of 23,000 personnel, only 7000 have undergone training.

“We are planning to ask for an extension, since the program gets over by the end of this month,” said Mohan. “It is slow going, because we need a batch of at least 40 people every week in every unit and if there is any bandobast duty or any law and order issue, they are pulled out of the training.

But the best part is that out of the 64,000 we have trained so far, not even one person has attempted suicide. That is, I think, our biggest success.

The program has helped separated spouses unite. A son who did not speak to his father for 15 years started talking and bonding with him at the end of the training.

It has had a tremendous impact and we can see it in front of our eyes,” he said.

“It is an important and fruitful exercise that we have done with the Tamil Nadu police,” said C Ramasubramanian, Nodal Officer for the Police Wellbeing Program. “We have identified and helped those who have suicidal thoughts.”

Psychologist Suresh though feels that the program can only be effective long term if the constabulary and the officers are trained together. “There are a lot of things that need to be communicated to the seniors and it is best if they are trained together so that they can understand each other,” he said.

For now though, a little help seems to have gone a long way in preventing suicides of young police personnel. And for that, the Tamil Nadu government deserves credit.

The Lede