A crisis of death on Bengaluru’s college campuses

Experts say it is important for colleges to have ‘safe spaces’ for students to talk about and sort out their problems to stop them from contemplating the extreme step. The Hindu spoke to students, teachers, institution heads, and mental health consultants on a spate of student deaths

Updated - May 24, 2024 05:40 pm IST

Published - May 24, 2024 08:00 am IST - bengaluru



Trigger warning: The following article has references to suicide. Please avoid reading if you feel distressed by the subject

It was May 14, just another day on the PES University campus in Electronics City in south-east Bengaluru. Pavan (name changed to protect identity), a second-year engineeringstudent, remembers that the students were busy with last-minute exam preparation.

“I was studying in a classroom on the fourth floor in the morning. It was 10.10 a.m. I saw a student standing very close to the railing in the corridor. Then, right as I watched, he jumped,” said Pavan, who was traumatised by the incident, with a stifled cry. Soon, they found out that a third-year engineering student, Rahul K., had died. He was the fourth student who had died in the same institution in the last one year.

In July 2023, Aditya Prabhu, a 19-year-old engineering student, took his life on the Girinagar campus in south Bengaluru on his birthday after he was allegedly verbally abused by college authorities for bringing his mobile phone into the examination hall. This incident sparked several protests by the student community demanding #JusticeforAdityaPrabhu. In October 2023, Surya M. Achar, a third-year year-engineering student, was found dead. Vignesh K., a first-year BBA student, also died in January 2024.

From examination-related troubles to relationship issues, investigating agencies have attributed a wide range of reasons for students taking the extreme step. Between October 2023 and January 2024, the death of students of reputed educational institutions made it to the news almost every month.

In November 2023, Ashwin Nambiyar, a 21-year-old student of Azim Premji University, was found dead in the hostel after allegedly being suspended for a week for violation of a rule. One month later, in December 2023, Diamond Kushwaha, a PhD student, ended his life at the Indian Institute of Science.

In January 2024, 19-year-old Dhruv Jatin Thakkar, a first-year student of the B.A., LL.B. programme at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, died at the Attiguppe metro station. On May 16, just a few days after the fourth death at PES University, Harshitha, a 21-year-old B.Tech student of Bangalore College of Engineering and Technology on the outskirts of Bengaluru, allegedly ended her life in her hostel room

While these were widely reported, police and medical records showed that many others went under the radar.

According to police records, there were 258 (124 men and 134 women) student suicides in 2023 in Bengaluru. In 2024, until April, there have been 72 (34 male and 38 female). Worried officials have now got in touch with educational institutions to prevent such incidents.

Stress on campus

The National Institute of Mental Health And Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), University of Melbourne, Australia, and several other Indian academic institutions recently collaborated on a study of 8,542 college students from 30 universities in 15 cities in nine States. 

This study, titled ‘Mental Health, Suicidality, Health, and Social Indicators Among College Students Across Nine States in India’showed that 18.8% of the students had considered suicide at some point in their life, while 12.4% of them considered ending their life in the last one year (before the study).

Further, 6.7% of students had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Up to 33.6% of participants reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression, while 23.2% of them reported moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.

“The cases of suicide among the youth are increasing every year. Many of them also have depression, anxiety, and severe academic pressure,” said Anish V. Cherian, Additional Professor of Psychiatric Social Work at NIMHANS, who was also the lead author of the study.

In 2022, a project called the ‘Urban Self-Harm Study’ (USHaS) was taken up under the National Health Mission. NIMHANS set up intervention centres at five general hospitals in the city to help those who had attempted suicide.

“In our USHaS registry, we have seen around 6,000 suicide attempts, out of which 60-70% were young patients. They had come to the emergency department of hospitals for medical reasons (after attempting suicide). However, college students do not come to these hospitals if they attempt to end life. They rarely face medical intervention,” Dr. Cherian said. He emphasised that such interventions could reduce reattempts, as the registry shows a 0.8% reduction in reattempts.

Stigma and silence 

Dr. Cherian stressed how important it is for colleges to have “safe spaces” for students to talk about their problems so they have adequate support systems. He also spoke about postvention, a set of interventions provided to bereaved survivors, community members, and caregivers after a suicide.

“After a suicide, many who are in distress might be influenced to attempt the same thing. Some others might experience shame or guilt for not being able to help the person who took the extreme step. This is why it is imperative, especially for educational institutions, to provide postvention tools,” he said.

However, many students and parents said that educational institutions often fail to provide any resources or support necessary to deal with mental health issues. The campus deaths went unaddressed, they felt, leaving students clueless about how to deal with the trauma.

Recalling the atmosphere at the university after the recent incident, Pavan said, “Colleges just move on after such incidents. There is no help offered, and no one even talks about it. We do not have counsellors on campus, but we have mentoring sessions with teachers. However, a lot of them fail to maintain friendly relationships with students.”

Keerthi (name changed), a degree student from another educational institution, said, “The maximum that happens is the declaration of a holiday the next day or the same day with maybe around five minutes of mourning. Then the whole issue is treated like a taboo subject, and no one talks about it.”

Girish Prabhu and Asha Prabhu, the parents of Prabhu, have been involved in multiple protests ever since their son’s death, demanding that both the university and the government take corrective action. However, they allege that it has proved futile so far. “We met the Education Minister, the Home minister and other officials. But no significant action has been taken,” Asha Prabhu said.

Taking part in a recent protest that sought that institutions take greater responsibility for such incidents, she said, “The university has not even suspended the three professors who were charged by the police with abetment of suicide in my son’s case. PES University neither attempted to contact us nor extended their condolences after the incident.”

Speaking about the mental health support that was provided to her son, she said, “For Aditya, a counsellor was appointed to talk to him. Later, we found out that the counsellor was not a certified psychologist, but rather a B.E graduate who had no clue regarding mental health.”

Expert committee report 

At the behest of parents, students, and other activists, the Karnataka government constituted an expert committee headed by Jayakara S.M., Vice Chancellor of Bangalore University, to provide recommendations on preventing student suicides due to academic pressure. 

The committee recommended a separate examination ordinance for private universities in Karnataka to guide the conduct of fair examinations. It also suggested that the Department of Higher Education constitute a committee to investigate the possibilities of conducting open-book examinations to spare students the stress of passing exams. It also suggested that the government make a serious attempt to do away with the marking/CGPA system and introduce a grading system instead. 

The report also stressed the need for a student well-being centre in every public and private higher education institution while also speaking about the need to have debriefing sessions in educational institutions after the death of a student.

Activists and parents, however, say this report failed to speak of student harassment, which is often a vital issue. “The summary indicates nothing about student harassment but rather reflects on the pressure students receive from parents and teachers,” Girish said.

Peer and mentor support

Teachers said simple acts and staying alert and sensitive can help avert a tragedy. “One of my students suddenly started wearing new clothes every day. He also started expressing gratitude towards others in a way that did not seem normal. After noticing this behaviour, another student and I asked him why he had suddenly changed. That is when we got to know that he had planned to end his life, and he had planned it down to the day he wanted to do it. We intervened and sent him to a hospital, which saved his life,” said Dr. Cherian.

He said any behavioural changes, which can include expression of extensive irritability, grief or even happiness, could be a sign that the person needs help. “If you think someone is not okay, ask them about it. Younger people do not have strong social support networks. It is important for parents, teachers, and others in their circle to be empathetic,” he said.

Officials from the Department of Higher Education refused to comment on the implementation of the committee’s recommendations as well as the steps that the government will take to prevent student suicides.  Many higher educational institutions that The Hindu reached out to said dealing with mental health issues of students is challenging because, despite providing resources, sometimes they might not be willing to make use of them.

While NLSIU and APU did not comment on the steps that have been taken since the death of students for the welfare of other students, J. Surya Prasad, Vice-Chancellor of PES University, said, “These cases were disturbing and shocking, and even tricky to understand. Students bring in a lot of (emotional) baggage from outside the university. While they are all intellectually strong, we in the university are in the process of strengthening them emotionally and mentally. We have adopted a lot of interventions, but we need to come up with that particular thing that gives them the confidence to deal with situations. As a university, we can ensure that we are working on it.” Many other institutions also have dedicated mental health programmes to help students.

“We have set up a dedicated Student Welfare Office, headed by a faculty chairperson, to ensure that students are reassured of constant support. We strive to create an environment that works as a safety valve. There is a Student Welfare Committee, and the volunteers of ‘Mitr’ (a voluntary student support group in hostels) will soon undergo training from professionals to work more effectively as a peer support group,” explained Rajluxmi Murthy V., Chairperson of the Student Welfare Office at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB).

C.K. Baba, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), southeast division, said he would shortly issue an advisory to all educational institutions in his jurisdiction for a “comprehensive mental health programme. The vulnerability of students is on the rise and hence, a 360-degree approach is needed to create safe campuses for students. The advisory will contain guidelines on how universities can alter their physical infrastructure, the need for security audits and having a dedicated student safety officer and qualified counsellors. We have also talked about the establishment of a 24/7 confidential helplines for crisis intervention in universities while also stressing on the need to build a strong peer support network,” Baba said.

(If you are in distress, please reach out to these 24x7 helplines: KIRAN 1800-599-0019 or Arogya Sahayavani at 104 for help

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