One in five sailors serving with China’s submarine force, especially nuclear subs in the disputed South China Sea, are experiencing mental health problems, according to a new research.
China in recent years focussed its military deployment in the South China Sea (SCS), which has become a new theatre of conflict with frequent forays by U.S. naval vessels to assert freedom of navigation in the region.
China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory. China has been building military bases on artificial islands in the region also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
A study by Naval Medical University in Shanghai of more than 500 servicemen and officers claims to be the first of its kind to highlight the psychological problems the troops working in the disputed waterway are facing.
Based on their answers to a self-assessment questionnaire, 21% of respondents were found to be suffering from some degree of mental health problems, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
According to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report in 2019, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has about four ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines and 50 diesel electric attack submarines.
According to the study, the Chinese submariners also reported higher indicators of anxiety and paranoid ideation — thinking that is dominated by suspicious or persecutory content — than the average for all Chinese military servicemen.
The findings suggested the submariners were “at higher risk of and have more serious psychological problems”, the researchers said in the report published this month in Military Medicine, a journal produced by the Society of Federal Health Professionals in the United States.
The study said more research was needed to understand the causes of the mental health problems, but said the sea’s strategic importance to China was likely to be one of the contributing factors.
“We speculate that this may be because of, on one hand, increasing military manoeuvres in south China in recent years that can involve 60 to 90 days of submerged cruising,” the researchers said.
“On the other hand, the physically unfriendly environment means that submariners are not only living in an isolated, constantly closed environment, but they also sleep in a cabin that is exposed to excessive noise.” The study also found that servicemen on nuclear submarines were more likely to experience psychological problems than their counterparts on traditional vessels, as were those with a university education.
The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence said in a report published in March that it expected China’s nuclear-powered attack submarine fleet to grow to 13 by 2030.
The researchers said the underwater environment might not “meet the work requirements of highly educated personnel longing for freedom and integration into society”, the Post report said.