Suicides, and mental distress and illness that often lead to them, have been a bane across different population segments in India. While every life thus lost is a cause for concern, the sense of untimely tragedy is compounded when bright young students resort to the extreme step. Today, educational institutions are increasingly marked by competitive pressures and financial and other demands that put a burden which some students are just not able to bear. The decision of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to deploy a Task Force to look into cases of suicide in Central-funded higher technical institutions was well-founded in the context of 12 such incidents over 2010- 2011. The panel has now made its recommendations, essentially on predictable lines. These include a dedicated system of counselling involving faculty members, students, parents and mental health professionals to cater to the needs of students; a visible entity for the service with parity in the institution’s organisational structure, and a proactive and enabling environment for students with psychological needs. The panel has rightly sought better awareness and sensitivity towards issues of social justice including gender, class and caste.

However, this exercise needs to be scaled up to cover the entire spectrum of educational institutions in the country in order to address the underlying issues in a more meaningful and egalitarian manner. According to data for 2011, the number of suicidal deaths country-wide among students was 7,696. In 2010 the total was 7,379. The figures have consistently risen over recent years. According to one study published by Lancet, suicides have become the second leading cause of death among young adults in India, after road accidents for men and maternity-related complications for women. That study also indicated that in India, suicides have become more common among educated and young adults — in contrast to patterns observed in many developed societies. We need to pause and reflect: what is happening to our young people? An all-out effort should be launched to reach out to youths in distress, enabling close cooperation and collaboration between counselling services and the health services. As a part of this exercise, India should find ways to address its shortage of mental health professionals. Counselling processes should assist students who have social, academic, linguistic, financial, physical and other difficulties. More preventive and promotional mental wellness activities, as also sensitisation and awareness programmes, need to be put in place.

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