What goes wrong when a student's response to stress is suicide

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New Delhi, August 19 (IANS) In a fiercely competitive environment in an emerging power centre that India is, the common man’s road to success is but through education: one’s ticket to a better life and perceived creature comfort. But in this race for the achievable, many exhaust before they finish. Some just perish.

Academic education is pursued out of the desire and desperation for respectable employment and livelihood, and is ingrained in an individual’s mind from an early age; however, little attention is paid to acquiring holistic knowledge and quality education per se, i.e., beyond marks and ranks.

Education and the uplift it brings with it is a singular gateway for an individual and their family to rid themselves of the social predicaments that tie them down by way of caste or class. However, the ride on this path is seldom smooth. And young students are made to foresee it.

When the results for classes 11 and 12 were announced in Andhra Pradesh, nine children committed suicide within two days. And this is an unfortunate addition to the spate of suicides that have lately been happening in India’s flagship institutions.

While Jadavpur University is infamously a hotspot for suicides, various Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campuses have reported four deaths by suicide in recent months.  

Suicide happens to be the fourth leading cause of fatality among youth. This is a major cause of concern as 65 per cent of India’s population is below the age of 35.

A 2012 Lancet Report stated that suicide rates in India are the highest among the age group of 15-29 years.

National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) report on Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India states that over 13,000 students died in 2021, at the rate of more than 35 per day. This is a 4.5 per cent rise from the 12,526 deaths in 2020, wherein 864 out of 10,732 suicides were due to failure in examination.

Maharashtra had the highest number of students committing suicide in 2021 with 1,834 deaths, followed by Madhya Pradesh with 1,308 deaths, and Tamil Nadu with 1,246 deaths.

As obvious as it may seem, a nation-wide policy on suicide prevention is the need of the hour to address suicide as a public health concern. With several state- and non-state agencies extending help to the distressed by means of helpline numbers and readily available help at the other end of a line, seeking help to address a mental health concern is fast being normalised. But the awareness about such a system and provision is yet to expand to include parts of society beyond the urban confines.

The move to drop mid-sem exams in IIT may appear to address the issue to some extent by way of easing some pressure for the students, but it must be understood whether it is a solution akin to a Band-Aid on a fracture or if that would be impactful in a more lasting manner.

IANS reached out to Dr Ritu Sharma, a psychologist and a core committee member of Manodarpan, an initiative that began during covid outbreak, for psychosocial support for mental health and wellbeing of students, under Union Ministry of Education.

Dr Sharma points out that “suicide is a momentary thought”, and that such thoughts can be averted through an institutionalised system of addressing it, if only the affected person reaches out for help.  

Suicidal thoughts occur when one is driven to the furthest point of despair and consumed by a sense of absolute helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. “Suicide is when a person has nothing to look forward to,” she said.

When aspirants of the most sought-after courses such as IIT-JEE, as seen in Kota, take the extreme step to end their life, one may attribute that to the student’s inability to handle the pressure of competition and rigorous study the pursuit demands.

Similar is the reason for students at the prestigious IITs resorting to suicide.

Dr Sharma points out that the skill to crack an exam is different from the skill required for coping with what comes after it.

“Students are not necessarily passionate about the course they intend to pursue, but do so because of their parents. Imagine being in a place where others told you to be. How will you be able to decide the next step (when even the first step was not your decision)?”

“We have to stop putting our children in the rat race. We have to stop forcing our children to score more and emotionally bond with them,” she emphasised, adding that “Averages students are more successful in industry.”

Asserting that “children must be taught to enjoy what they do”, it calls for a greater understanding at social level that each profession is significant and that all must be respected. “As a society, if we respect all professions, our children will be in a better place. And this has to come from the community,” she added.

There is also a need to understand that “success is also about how happy you feel within. Even a mediocre person could be successful and happy”.

It is imperative that “students be empowered in a manner that they are able to take care of their problems in a very solution-oriented way,” said the psychologist, highlighting that children must be trained to make their own decisions while they are mindful of the consequences of those decisions.

“They must also be assured that their family will be by their side no matter what they do. With this, even in adversities, they will be able to make judgements on their own. When you fail at one thing, it opens the doors for many other avenues. But the ability to see that will come when students start making their own decisions.”

Most Indian children are generally raised in over-protected environments and allowed a controlled exposure to the world up to a certain age, and when they are set on their mark for the race to the prized selections after due labour, they are often unprepared to deal with the next set of challenges after they have surmounted one.

The key to healthy competition and well-being lies in preparing students to meet challenges in a growth-oriented manner instead of a result-oriented obsession.

Social support is irreplaceable in the formative stages of a student at any level and contributes significantly in shaping one’s notion of success.

After all, given the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, being a (Harvard) drop-out is as much a symbol of success as is acing IIT-JEE.

(Kavya Dubey may be reached at kavya.d@ians.in)