The spectre of student suicides looms large over the educational system. We look at the reasons that drive students into despair and desperation, and to take the extreme step.

Being young is a time to rejoice and learn... ideally, it should be that. However, this is not so for many students. Left to their own devices to cope with conditions whose limits they do not fully understand, some youth take the irreversible decision — to end it all.

Suicide among students and people in that age group is a stark reality that we need to take notice of at once. The numbers for 2012 corroborate that: the rate of suicides in India was 11.2 while that in Tamil Nadu was 24.9. (The rate of suicide is defined as the number of suicides per one lakh population.) The maximum number of suicides among women were in the age group 15-29 and among men 30-45, according to 2012 records from the Crime Records Bureau of Tamil Nadu. A University Grants Commission project of Thomas Jenetius, Director of the Centre for Counselling and Guidance, Sree Saraswathi Thyagaraja College, Pollachi, revealed that out of 4,646 students in 96 colleges across Tamil Nadu, 12.20 per cent students had attempted suicide, while 15.45 had suicidal tendencies.

The pain of being alone

A college student chided by her teacher commits suicide. Another, not being able to cope with English as a medium of instruction does the same. Yet another boy whose love is spurned by a girl commits suicide. A bright student from a rural background ends his life because he has 15 arrears to clear. Though trivial, these are the reasons behind many suicides.

Among factors that stress students the most, broken relationships and love failure top the list, followed by academic pressure, social adjustment problems, problems with speaking English, family problems, loneliness, being away from the family, difference in culture and having arrears in exams. R. Rajaram, Director of Sri Eshwar College of Engineering, Coimbatore, says: “Students from urban Tamil medium schools are able to adjust better than those from rural Tamil medium schools.” The company of classmates who can speak and write fluently in English appears to be the primary cause of stress.

Janet Vasantha Kumari is the head of the department of medical and psychiatric social work at Madurai Institute of Social Sciences and the coordinator of Pudhu Yugam, a suicide prevention centre in Madurai. She is concerned about the fact that the society and the educational system have not given space for the students to ventilate their grievances. “They are neither able to speak their mind at home nor at educational institutions,” she says.

The tolerance levels of college students have reduced drastically, according to Dr. D. Srinivasan, psychiatrist, Kovai Medical Centre and Hospital. “They are not able to accept comparisons, are under pressure to perform, not able to know where friendship ends and love begins, cope with the transition from school to college.” he says.

The urban mechanisation of life has already conditioned the students, who are trained to be mark-scoring machines rather than well-balanced individuals. The endless obsession with books and exams drives students into despair and desperation. Pleading for a break from this regimen, Pari Maindhan, general secretary of Students’ Federation of Tamil Nadu, says, “According to the rules there should be library hours and sports…These things are generally ignored. Sex education is also a must, because at this stage a student has to cope with growing into an adult and face the related hormonal changes.” A change in the education system is necessary, says R. Murali, principal of Madura College. “We need a revolution in the education system to prevent student suicides. Students must be taught to be outgoing and confident rather than being obedient and subservient. We are actually cultivating a slave mentality in the name of inculcating discipline.”

Suicide prevention

“There are early signs to look out for, on noticing which, people should reach out and help,” says Chennai-based psychiatrist Dr N. Rangarajan. He lists factors such as missing class, looking drugged, being inattentive and dropping in performance. “Most people try to convey what they feel, and it is not true that those who say it do not do it,” he says. Either directly or indirectly, the person asks for help. They may choose a particular person to reach out to, and if that person were to be insensitive to the needs of the confiding person, the feeling gets reinforced. While society may be responsible for the loss of self-esteem and feelings of desperation, parents have to be available and approachable and provide confidence to students. Teachers should understand the students’ worth and appreciate them.

Several things can be done and need to be done to prevent suicides. For example, IIT Madras has a “Life-skills course” for first-year students, where they learn about team work and values and get outbound training. The faculty members’ phone numbers are given to all the first-years. But again, since the student-teacher ratio is so high, how effective would these measures be?

Dr. C. Ramasubramanian, Madurai-based psychiatrist and State nodal officer of district mental health programme in Madurai, says, “Only recently Madurai Collector L. Subramanian came to know that none of the private colleges in the city had appointed student counsellors in their institutions. Immediately, he requested me to arrange for a training programme and also asked all colleges in the district to nominate two of their faculty for the training programme. The training programme is underway this week.”

That will not in itself put an end to the problem. Everyone who is in this community — parents, teachers and the students — need to be sensitised to what this means. There is an urgent need to develop an understanding of how to deal with the signals that a suicidal person may be giving out. Students must be encouraged to understand themselves and develop reasonable and realistic expectations of themselves, have a sense of proportion. The great barrier that exists between students and their parents when it comes to talking about love and relationships should be broken down.

It all comes down to having more time for interpersonal nurture — the next time you see someone dejected or feeling alone, don’t hesitate to extend your friendship and tell them, “it isn’t all bad, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”