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Promoting mental health literacy among students and educators is the right step towards addressing the rising suicide rates in higher education institutions

Of late, the number of suicides in the (Indian Institute of Technology) IITs and other higher education institutions has been on the rise. This year, three IIT Hyderabad students committed suicide, and it was reported that in their suicide notes they had mentioned ‘academic pressure’ and ‘depression’ as reasons for their decision to end their lives. Four cases of suicides were reported at IIT Kharagpur, and the institute was criticised for its failure to prevent students from taking such extreme steps. Many more cases of suicides in other higher educational institutions have been reported in the recent past.

Very recently, a first-year postgraduate student of Humanities and Development Studies at IIT Madras, allegedly committed suicide. She was found hanging in her hostel room. It is said that the girl had mentioned that a professor was the cause of her death, and the case is being investigated by the Central Crime Branch. Hopefully, the public will come to know the real cause of her alleged suicide. Some IIT sources say that she was a bright student and therefore academic pressure could not have driven her to take her own life (if we assume that it is a suicide). Why did the meritorious student decide to commit suicide? Was she subjected to any form of mental torture or harassment? Was she not prepared to face challenges? Did she not seek help from anyone? Should the education system be blamed for the rising number of suicides in higher education institutions? Many such questions have been raised and, unfortunately, some questions remain unanswered.

The purpose of the article is not to unravel or unlock the mystery behind the death of the girl, but to analyse the causes of suicides in higher education institutions and to suggest measures to tackle the issue.

Triggers

What are the causes of climbing suicide rates among students? There could be so many reasons, but some common ones include unrealistic expectations of parents, peer pressure, academic stress, attitude of faculty towards students, unhealthy competition, career issues, feelings of rejection, discrimination, mental health problems such as depression and psychological distress, lack of help-seeking skills and access to professional counselling.

The myths that engineering and medicine are the top courses preferred by academically brilliant students, the best brains go to IITs and AIIMS or other top medical colleges, and all IITians get placed in top companies and are paid high salaries, make some parents nurture unrealistic dreams and push their wards to make their dreams come true.

Every year, over 10 lakh candidates prepare for IIT JEE and only around 9,500 students are admitted to the IITs. When parents push their children to achieve unrealistic goals and when the children fail to fulfil their parents’ dreams, the seed of depression is sown in their young minds. Some students are able to crack highly competitive exams, thanks to vigorous coaching, and get seats into the IITs, but are unable to cope with academic pressure. As a result, they are subjected to depression and some of them are forced to discontinue their studies.

According to the data shared by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2,461 students (both UG and PG) dropped out of various IITs during the past two years. We can imagine the trauma experienced by the dropouts and others who are not able to cope with academic pressure and unfriendly campus environment that pushes them into the pool of depression.

The negative attitude of some faculty members towards students is also a cause for some students’ mental stress. According to a source from an IIT, some students being labelled ‘slow-learner’, ‘not fit for IIT’, ‘not IIT stuff’, ‘good for nothing’, etc. by the faculty members affect the self-esteem of the students.

Research shows that around 20% of students in higher education institutions have mental health problems due to various factors. Students’ poor mental health can affect their studies, career and lives. What measures should be taken to deal with students who have depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, addiction, and so on? Promoting mental health literacy among educators and students is important.

Awareness

Mental Health Literacy (MHL) is not a familiar term in Indian educational institutions. Most education administrators and educators have never felt the need for promoting MHL among teachers and students. Very recently, while discussing its importance with a group of school teachers, I noticed that they did not seem to have a clear idea of what it is and the need for it. I wasn’t surprised because only a few years ago, I came to know about its significance while going through an article related to it.

MHL includes “the ability to recognise specific disorders; knowing how to seek mental health information; knowledge of risk factors and causes, of self-treatments, and of professional help available; and attitudes that promote recognition and appropriate help-seeking”.

Educational institutions should take steps to enhance the MHL of students as well as educators. This will help everyone understand their mental health and enhance their help-seeking and self-management skills. According to some research, those who have high levels of MHL seek help for mental health issues more compared to those with low levels of MHL.

Educators, teachers and others who are in constant touch with students should have MHL and know how to identify the students who struggle with depression and help them come out of it.

Those who require assistance for overcoming suicidal thoughts may contact the State’s (Tamil Nadu) health helpline 104 or suicide prevention helpline of NGOs such as Sneha 044-24640050; Vandrevala Foundation 18602662345; and Roshni 040-66202000

The writer is an academic, columnist and freelance writer. rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 5:48:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/step-out-of-the-spiral/article30229516.ece

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