A new study has provided a rare insight into the inner sanctum of one of China’s most guarded military secrets — and the news is not good.
According to a report by CNN citing the study, more than 1 in 5 sailors on Chinese submarines operating in the South China Sea reported mental health problems.
The research by China’s Second Military Medical University and Navy Military Medical University, published in the British journal Military Medicine, showed submariners reported severe psychological problems at much higher rates compared to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces as a whole.
“This study demonstrates for the first time that soldiers and officers in the submarine force in the South China Sea are facing mental health risks and suffering from serious psychological problems,” the researchers concluded.
The study surveyed 580 male submariners in the PLA Navy’s South China Sea fleet, with 511 of those returning complete responses, CNN reported.
While the overall condition of submariners’ mental health was only slightly worse than PLA troops in general, the research showed significantly worse problems among the sub force.
PLA Navy submariners showed higher rates of anxiety, phobias, paranoia and somatization — where mental issues surface with physical symptoms — than among Chinese troops overall, CNN reported.
Conditions and the military situation in the South China Sea exacerbate the problems, the researchers said.
The South China Sea has become a hotspot for military tensions in recent years.
Beijing claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea, and since 2014 it has built up tiny reefs and sandbars into man-made artificial islands, fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems — antagonizing regional governments.
Washington doesn’t recognize those claims and regularly sends US warships and military aircraft through the region, drawing Beijing’s ire, CNN reported.
China in response has increased military maneuvers in the region, which means submarines can spend two to three months submerged in tight, noisy confines that lead to sleep deprivation among submariners, the researchers said.
“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 said.
Constant exposure to artificial light can also lead to mental problems, the researchers said. The researchers found submariners with college or post-graduate degrees suffered more mental problems than those with lower levels of education, CNN reported.
They suggested two reasons for this: The highly educated have no way to relieve psychological pressures in their isolated environment and long for “freedom and integration into society.”
The researchers also said the problems were more pronounced among those on nuclear-powered submarines versus those that were conventionally powered.
Not only do complex nuclear-powered submarines require better educated personnel, those aboard them tend to worry more about accidents and the effect of radiation on their health, the researchers said.
Long overlooked in militaries around the world, mental health is an important part of determining the overall readiness of a force, Business Insider India reported.
For China, psychological evaluations were not included as part of the military recruitment process until 2006, and mental health services for Chinese troops are still works in progress.
Recognizing that life aboard naval vessels can be challenging for sailors, the US Navy began embedding psychologists aboard aircraft carriers in the 1990s, and it saw a dramatic decrease in emergency evacuations and misbehavior.
This program, known as the embedded Mental Health Program (eMHP), was later extended to additional surface vessels and appeared to be similarly effective, Business Insider India reported.
An eMHP for the Navy’s submarine force was piloted in 2013 in Norfolk, Virginia and showed positive results, reducing annual unplanned losses from 22 to 2 by 2016, when the program was expanded to the larger submarine force.
The Navy also set up eMHP services for Marines and the special operations forces as well.
China has a fleet of at least 60 submarines, according to a 2019 report from the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, CNN reported.
At least 10 of those are nuclear-powered. But the country is in the midst of an ambitious shipbuilding program of which submarines play an important part.
The US Office of Naval Intelligence expects the PLA Navy submarine force to increase by 16 nuclear-powered vessels in the next decade, according to a Congressional Research Service report from March 2020.