A culture of cohesion to save young lives on campuses

Counselling and therapies are crucial measures, but what institutions of learning need to do is to ensure respect for academic and socio-economic diversity on their campuses

Published - April 18, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘Institutions must deter and curb all forms of discrimination’

‘Institutions must deter and curb all forms of discrimination’ | Photo Credit: SHAJU JOHN

To read newspaper reports about young students ending their lives is disturbing. During the 2018-23 quinquennial, there were as many as 61 students fading away: in the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs (33), the National Institutes of Technology, or NITs (24) and the Indian Institutes of Management (4). In the 2014-21 septennial, there were 122 cases in various higher education institutions. In both cohorts, most students were from the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Other Backward Castes (OBC) and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). Marginalisation and deprivation are factors but one also finds a wide spectrum of students.

Campuses are now impersonal spaces

The fact is that campuses have become large and impersonal spaces. Family support is dwindling as there are more nuclear families now with working parents who are unable to provide the kind of parenting and mentoring that joint families provide. Individualism is all pervasive in society. Consequently, early signs of emotional distress go unnoticed, unrecognised, and unaddressed. Generally, institutions are in denial mode and prefer to hush things up. They expect the situation to be dealt with by the parents. Students in emotional distress have at times been advised to spend time with their families.

In institutions of higher education the system is such that there is hardly any free and fair communication between students, their seniors, teachers, and the administration. A ‘home away from home’ kind of an experience eludes students. Classroom interactions are confined to academics, with recurrent exhortations to students to be committed, dedicated and hard working, adding to the stress emotionally distressed students are already under. Teachers may hardly have the time, the inclination or even the expertise to notice and address any disturbing traits among their students. In any case, a highly formalised, standardised and hierarchical structure can never be conducive to promoting congeniality, or even empathy.

Consequently, students are deprived of much-needed preventive measures. It is only when tragedy occurs that actions are triggered — an inquiry and then a prescription of remedial and preventive measures. That is it.

Most campus suicides are attributed to academic pressure, family circumstances, personal reasons, different kinds of stress, financial distress, caste-based discrimination, and many different forms of harassment. Many of the sources of distress lie outside the purview of higher education institutions and have their genesis in the larger economic and societal contexts. Therefore, each of these reasons must need to be addressed at their source by the government, society, institutions, parents, and families.

There are formal mechanisms in place to provide personal, cultural and psychological counselling to students. Most of the IITs, NITs and the like have put in place (or beginning to) online and offline mechanisms to access personal counselling and therapies in a confidential manner. Apps such as Dost, Saathi, and Mitr have also been launched to access their services anonymously. Most of these institutions also organise awareness and sensitisation programmes for students.

Yet, such centres appear to be deficient on many counts. The onus is on students ‘in need’ to seek help — it is they who must seek an appointment. Another drawback is that they work most of the time during office hours, and on working days, and are often unable to respond in a prompt manner. One of the IITs claims, and rightly so, that ‘it tries to help students as soon as possible and as much as possible’. A few of them have arrangements with external agencies to provide psychological counselling. The fact is that institutions of national importance are in a much better situation than most central and State universities (the little information that is available suggests that they usually assign the task of counselling to faculty members and are yet to embrace the idea of professionally trained counsellors).

A study in contrasts

In comparison, universities in the United States have dedicated counselling centres with a range of psychological services such as evaluation, counselling, consultation, and therapies — individual and group. They are accredited by the International Accreditation of Counseling Services (IACS) and are manned by licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical therapists, mental health workers and social workers. The counsellor-to-student ratio is carefully established through a combination of empirical analysis and judgments of experienced counselling directors.

In contrast, the psychological counselling services in Indian campuses are limited to providing some physical space in a corner of the institution, with a limited number of professionally trained psychologists and psychotherapists. There are hardly any standards. One wishes that the approval and accreditation process of institutions also gives equal importance to this aspect of student life as done for floor area, faculty, books, and even computers. There needs to be a well-oiled life support system for many students.

Counselling and therapies as curative measures may be easy to strengthen and streamline. What is critical but most difficult is to create conditions for forming an assimilative culture of cohesion and promoting respect for academic and socio-economic diversity. Institutions must deter and curb all forms of discrimination, howsoever subtle and done even in jest.

At times, the inability to cope with academic pressure and get good grades is linked to the category and ranks of students. A few fringe elements on campus might be prejudicial about reservations in admission and differential fee policies.

Cannot institutions be discreet about such sensitive information? Could they not evolve a code of campus ethics prescribing standards and protocols of what can and cannot be discussed even in informal social settings? Social, economic, and cultural diversity on campuses add value — but only if they are sensitively nurtured and carefully harnessed.

Ayalur K. Bakthavatsalam is HAG Professor at the National Institute of Technology, Trichy. Furqan Qamar, a professor at the Faculty of Management Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia, is a former Adviser for Education at the Planning Commission of India. The views expressed are personal. Those in distress could seek professional help and counselling

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