Support systems that include counselling cells can play a major role in preventing suicides in colleges and help students have a smooth education experience.

The recent suicide of a Chennai college girl has turned the spotlight on the need to address issues of depression, stress, harassment, culture-shock, and pressure to perform, through counselling cells on college campuses.

“Very few colleges in the city employ the service of a full-time counsellor. In colleges which have counselling cells, the counsellor-student ratio is very low. Often, there is one counsellor for 2,000 students,” says Saras Bhaskar, founder, Chennai Counsellor's Foundation. “In fact, the role of counsellors in colleges is not as popular as in schools,” she says.

Ironically, every college must have counselling centres as part of a Student Support and Progression criterion for National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) accreditation. The University of Madras, as part of its anti-ragging measures last academic year, sent a circular to colleges to set up counselling cells. “Only about 25 per cent of these colleges say they have exclusive centres within campus, and many have part-time faculty,” says vice-chancellor G. Thiruvasagam.

Primarily, colleges require the services of counsellors mostly for the first-year and final-year students. “For first-year students, it is to facilitate the transition from school to college and the sessions are spread over 21 hours. For final-year students, it is to help them face work, marriage and real-world situations,” says Ms. Bhaskar.

At Shree Motilal Kanhaiyalal Fomra Institute of Technology, Kelambakkam, where a student committed suicide last year, students say they are not aware of any such facility available in the college. Says Ms. Bhaskar, “It is important to address the entire class after the loss of a student.”

There is widespread stigma attached to counsellors in colleges. Students in distress do not approach them mistaking them for psychiatrists. An awareness should be created among students and teachers that help is at hand for them. Colleges that have full-time counsellors say their services are utilised, but students seek help only when an issue goes beyond control.

In most cases, seniors and friends don the role of counsellors, as students do not feel at home with counsellors who are much elder to them. Srunika K., president, Student's Union, Ethiraj College for Women, says, “Many students (juniors and my classmates) look up to us as leaders and confide in us as they feel comfortable.”

In many colleges faculty members don the role of counsellors. “It is necessary for the faculty to be able to identify student problems since they are the first contact point. If the problems are addressed in the initial stages it will not have to be brought to us,” says Miriam Samuel, head, department of Social Work, Madras Christian College.

Academics say that a strong support system, be it a counselling cell or an understanding family, is key to prevent the bottling up of emotions.

The University of Madras has plans to establish a centralised counselling facility at the Madras School of Social Work by next month. The facility will address issues and concerns facing young adults in the university-affiliated colleges. “We are considering visiting colleges and talking to students and college authorities on the importance of counselling. We will also organise training programmes at the centre for students, their parents and teachers in anger management and relationship,” says Fathima Vasanth, principal, Madras School of Social Work.