The series of juvenile suicides — 26 in four weeks — has Mumbai on the edge. The pressure to perform and the lack of supporting family structures often lead youth to the precipice. Perhaps it's time to reassess our notions of success and well-being?

There is a new kind of disease rampant in the city of Mumbai, one that does not respond to the usual lines of treatment. With more than 26 juvenile suicides reported in a span of just four weeks, parents, teachers, counsellors and students in the city are on the edge. While the causes are varied — parental permission denied to learn dancing/ watch television, failure in examinations, tiff with parents/ classmates, child suspended from school for bunking classes/ copying etc. — the recent victims are terrifyingly young (10-20 years). The apparent cause of suicide, feel the specialists, is often merely a trigger for a deeper and more complex underlying problem. There is a definite indication, worry social scientists, that the social fabric of the city, which is supposed to nurture and enhance the growing years of children, is beginning to shred in places.

Need for empathy

“What most disturbed children need is a patient and sympathetic listener. Many a suicide has been averted with a bit of timely empathy,” says city-based student counsellor, Swati Naik. “Some decades back, the joint family system ruled supreme in Indian society and a child upset about something usually came back home to sympathetic grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who were always willing to pitch in with assistance and lend a ear,” she expands. However, the domestic structure undergoing changes and giving way to an age of nuclear families has resulted in disturbances at various levels. With both parents frequently working, children often let themselves into empty houses after school/ college. This could be depressing when a child is overwrought about something. Added to that, parents, when they return home, are often preoccupied with career and relationship hassles. It is this feeling of being isolated in a crisis that often tips the balance for troubled youngsters.

Cutting across class

The specialists are worried to note that the recent spate of suicides makes a clean slice through different strata of society. While 14-year-old Rajesh Yadav, who hanged himself from the ceiling fan, was the son of a humble floor polisher, Mahesh Poddar's daughter, besides hailing from an affluent background, had scored 82 per cent in Class X. While the former was suspended for bunking classes, the latter had missed out on securing admission to the college of her choice. Mahesh Poddar looks back with heartache as he recalls his daughter constantly checking her palm to see how long her lifeline was, days before she killed herself. Poddar has now turned an active crusader for the promotion of mental health in the city.

Social scientist Dr. Harish Shetty feels that besides poor emotional contact between parents and children, bad dietary and sleep habits are also to blame. City parents, on the other hand, are quick to turn defensive and blame juvenile depression on the education system which places examination marks above holistic learning. “The multiple pressures of coping with city life are enormous. My daughter is only 13 but due to the high expectations of her house mistresses, she feels compelled to shine at academics as well as sports. A year back, she was marginally plump but due to unbearable peer pressure to look good, she went on a starvation diet that has left her with weak bones and coarse hair. How is it humanly possible for a child to excel at everything?” asks the distraught mother, Shanti Malhotra.

While the blame game between parents and school authorities continues unabated, psychologists feel that filling a child's life with a series of classes could have adverse effects on mental health. “Very often, working parents feel a child is safer and more accountable if after school/ college, he rushes from one set of classes to the other. I see children around hopping from drawing classes to karate classes, from karate to swimming and from swimming to tuitions. From tuitions it is back to homework with barely time for a quick dinner before crashing into bed. Most parents don't realise that zero hour is very essential for sound mental health,” says Swati Naik. She describes zero hour as a time slot when the mind is allowed to roam free, day dream or just chill — an essential exercise for the human brain to declutter and sift through the day's sensory load. She also emphasises the need for robust outdoor games with friends as an effective means of destressing. “I was shocked to find my son playing football with the building kids a day before his IIT entrance exams till he explained that it was the best way of clearing a jumbled mind. Right enough, he cracked his exams with excellent marks,” recalls M. Nidhi, parent of a first year IITian. That sunlight is essential to the formation of endorphin is a well known fact. “Ever wondered why one feels so good after a brisk outdoor walk or a hearty laugh? These activities release endorphins in the blood. Spending a major part of the day in a sedentary position, in the cramped neon-lit classrooms of school and coaching classes could leave a child low in this feel-good compound, cautions Swati.

Media sensationalisation?

A large section of Mumbaikars feel that the media is to blame for placing undue emphasis on student suicides. “Teen-aged angst and juvenile depression are age old problems, as a survey of statistics will clearly reveal. By sensationalising the problem and making it breaking news, the media could be contributing to the current epidemic,” says Mitali Bhattacharya, a professor of Computer Science at the Institute of Catering Technology. Ruma Nath, an English teacher at St. John's Universal School, seconds this opinion. “Certain pesky students are capitalising on the present suicide scare. The moment you pull them up for misdeeds, they turn back and remind you what the outcome of our scolding could be!” says an exasperated and amused Ruma.

The need for family support has never been greater. Aviation expert Navjot Singh recalls her harrowing experience many years back when her young son started plucking out tufts of hair from his head, leaving behind bald patches. A visit to the trichologist revealed that there was nothing wrong with his scalp but a problem of deep-seated mental insecurity as servants were changing every week. Both parents, high profile figures in the field of commercial aviation, got a further shock when they learned from puzzled teachers that their child was learning his alphabets in reverse formation. A bit of investigation revealed that a semi-literate maid-servant was sitting across the child to teach, forcing him to pick up the alphabets all wrong. It was only after Navjot's elderly parents moved into the neighbourhood and took charge that the child's progress went remarkably up the performance graph. Today, the teenager is the head-boy of one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Mumbai's suburbs with a promising academic future ahead of him.

Nervous times

With the examination months looming close, city parents are a wary lot. “Earlier, we would goad our children into pushing the envelope but now mental stability comes above academic achievement on our list of priorities,” says Mayukh Wasan, parent of a Class X student from the ICSE board. “Happy children are more important than successful children,” seems to be the new mantra in town. Reading between the lines, one gets the definite message that there is something badly amiss in the city, the tempo and quality of urban life requiring urgent analysis by social scientists. The warning signs are there for all to see, caution the psychologists, one only needs the right kind of vision to recognise them. Mandatory counselling at the school and college levels, special training imparted to teachers and parents could turn the tide of thinking trends in the city's youth. Helplines that one could get through to quickly, revival of neighbourly contact and fellow feeling, family support and hordes of city volunteers willing to spread cheer and sunshine are the need of the hour. It's a kind of poetic justice that the elderly, once relegated to the sidelines of urban society, are once again in huge demand. “Get back the grandparents” is the cry going up from all around as these gentle folks could never fail to bring in the magic with their timeless wisdom. Get back the old family values for good measure, advise the specialists, and to move forward in a happy manner, fast forward to the past.