Lives snuffed out
Student suicides in premium educational institutes have increased over the years. It’s time for an evaluation
March, for me, will always mean exam season. There is something deeply ingrained in my psyche associated with this time of the year, which is almost like my personal Ides of March. The seasonal change with a propensity to catch a cold along with the fear of impending final examinations rule supreme. I still remember being woken up much before the crack of dawn by my father’s loving voice accompanied by a steaming hot cup of tea. Sleep would be bid adieu and the brain would be beseeched to swing into action and exercise the last-minute cramming of facts, numbers, explanations. Beneath it all was a constant trepidation. There was no joy (ever) in sitting for examinations. There was also anxiety, hurry, a sense of chaos. Even at a young age, I hated that feeling of helplessness and lack of control.
This time of the year reminds me of the origins of my anxiety. The consternations of impressionable youth when left unaddressed can lead to meltdowns, instability, depression, or fester into life-long issues. When I was in school or college, there wasn’t much awareness about the urgent need for mental wellness of students. No one spoke about it, not parents or teachers. Kids and young adults would be chastised rather than comforted. I spent years of my student life in absolute dread — sleepless, nervous, miserable, and unable to speak to any adult about it. The fear was always of failure; not failing examinations but rather not performing well enough. There was also a sense of competition; who scored more, who topped the class, who bettered their peers. This competitiveness has only increased among today’s children and young adults. Sometimes, parents apply the pressure, many times it’s the students that cut themselves no slack.
Educational institutes have also failed to recognise students’ cry for help. Recently, IIT Bombay and IIT Madras have been rocked by reports of students committing suicide. Even the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud wondered where our educational institutes have gone wrong while highlighting that many instances were of students hailing from marginalized backgrounds. The students of IITs/IIMs are the creme de la creme of Indian youth. They are among the brightest that the generation has to offer. I shudder to think that many youngsters may still be facing discrimination on the grounds of caste even in these hallowed corridors of higher education. If this is happening in our premium institutes, what hope is there for the rest of the nation?
I am not surprised but only pained to learn of the 61 suicides at IITs, NITs, and IIMs between 2018 and 2023. These numbers were shared this month in the Rajya Sabha by Minister of State for Education Dr. Subhas Sarkar in a written reply. The statistics would be much higher if we consider death by suicides that have happened in other educational institutes as well.
If many of these suicides are not due to casteist slurs and harassments, they are happening definitely because our institutes are failing to identify students who need psychiatric help. The pandemic has been a challenging phase for students. With Covid-19 necessitating lockdowns, students lost crucial months of study. Educational institutes should have approached the return to classrooms with this in mind. Weaker students, not just in academics but also those in mental turmoil, would be struggling. We also don’t do enough to speak of the need for mental health and wellness of students. Decades ago, the pressure that we experienced as students has only increased manifold today. The government has said that NEP 2020 has provisions for counselling, helping students cope with stress and emotional upheavals. Students will also be able to engage in more extra-curricular activities such as sports, arts and culture clubs etc., socialising, and partake in community projects. Dr Sarkar also said that MANODARPAN, a government initiative, offered psychological support to students, teachers and families for mental wellness during Covid-19. It’s true that today there is more awareness of mental health and tools at our disposal. But it’s still not easy to seek help because of the taboo that still lurks around.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal