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Saturday, July 20, 2013

207 - Suicides at IITs - Musings of Dheeraj Sanghi

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Every year, 4-5 students are ending their lives in the IIT system. Given that the total student population in the IIT system is between 40-50 thousand, we are losing one bright young life for every 10,000 students every year. This is a serious cause for concern.

When any tragedy occurs, the first and foremost question that everyone has is: "Why did this happen." And when such tragedies happen as often as have happened in the IIT system, it is natural that people will want to know the reasons. Unfortunately, it is not easy to find the reasons. Each life is unique, and the reasons to end that life are also unique. In most cases, if not all, there are multiple reasons behind such a decision, though one of them may have acted as a trigger on that fateful day. But, if there are so many tragedies, then there must be something common between them. People want simple answers, which they can understand. And if the experts fail to give a simple answer, they will invent one. And hence the common perception that these deaths are caused by academic stress.

And this perception has ensured that the focus of the Institute authorities is on reducing academic stress, and less attention is paid to the "real" issues. When someone takes away his/her life, and a question is asked what have you done since the last such incident, you can not just say that we are trying to do things that will increase interaction amongst the students, even though that may be the most important thing to do. You have to tell how you have reduced academic stress since last such incident, because that is what most people understand as the reason.

IITs are a competitive place. The admission to IITs is the most competitive exam in the world, for which many students study for 3-4 years, and even drop one year after passing 12th class to prepare for IIT admission. The competition to perform better than average in such a group can be very intense, and someone who is used to be amongst the top few in his/her school for 12 years would feel stress on realizing that s/he is performing worse than average in this group.

If I look at the curriculum at IIT Kanpur (since I know more about it), we have less courses than whatever I know of curriculum at various NITs, we have less contact hours, we fail fewer students, we provide opportunities to recover from failure by offering summer courses, and so on. We have a lower graduating requirement (in terms of grades) than any NIT. (From 2011 onwards, one only has to pass all courses with a 'D' grade to get a degree.)

A large number of changes have happened in IIT Kanpur in the last 5 years in response to these questions about academic stress. We teach less - the working weeks have been reduced from 15 to 14 in a semester, and additional days have been given to spread the exams (to minimize the probability of two end-semester exams in a day), as well as ensuring that there is a gap of 2 days between the classes and final exam. We have reduced class timing from 55 minutes to 50 minutes, to further force a reduction in course content in every course, and enable a more leisurely movement from one class to the other, enabling the students to ask a few questions from the instructors at the end of the class without the stress of getting late for the next class. The number of fail grades is an all time low, around 2.5 percent of all grades in the Institute. I wonder if there is any university in India with a lower fail percentage. The graduation requirement has been reduced from a CPI of 5.0 to 4.0, basically allowing anyone passing all the courses to get a degree. Again, I wonder if there is any university in the world which gives degrees at "D" average, like we do. The students don't even have to bother about showing an "F" grade on their transcript. They are allowed to withdraw from a course just a week before the end-semester exam with no mention of such a withdrawal in the transcript. We have changed the rules for Academic Warning, Probation and Termination (for under-graduate students) so that only a fraction of students will get into these states. We have started giving additional chances to a student whose program has been terminated to explain his/her poor performance, and have re-admitted several such students.

Today, there is no doubt in my mind that the "real" issue causing stress to the students is competition and not the curriculum and academic rules. And hence the solution is to counsel the students to not get into a rat race. They need counseling that a five point someone can have a good life ahead. They need counseling that if they find it hard to cope up with all the courses in a semester, there is no harm in dropping one or even two courses. The stress from peer pressure in the hostels to complete the BTech degree in 4 years is intense. They need to be told that it is alright to be slow and steady and complete the program in extra time. But it is easier said than done. Remember, these are people who are intensely competitive. That is how they got through JEE. To now tell them to not worry about competition is certainly not very convincing to them.

I remember when I was the Department Under-graduate Convener several years ago, I would call each student on Academic Probation, ask them to register for courses which they have already failed once, and they think they failed narrowly (in which they have a easier chance to pass), but they will all want to do CS courses because they could do other courses in summer and still have a chance to graduate in 4 years. I would tell them that they should first focus on getting a few 'C' grades or better on their respective transcripts and get out of this cycle of Warning and Probation, and only later worry about how much time their degree will take. I will then monitor their performance in these courses, and if one is performing very poorly in some course, ask him/her to drop that course, since the termination rules at that time were based on the performance in courses that one did that semester. Again, there would be huge resistance. "I will work hard and make up and pass the course," was a common refrain. I couldn't force them, but if I was spending hours with each one of them, they reluctantly would agree to my advice. I was happy when at the end of the semester, there was not a single CSE BTech student in the termination list, but I became famous as someone whose sole aim in life was to delay everyone's graduation. Most of these students (who were on Academic Probation) felt that they could have passed more courses, that they could have passed advanced department courses, and that my advice held them back I doubt if anyone felt that because of my advice they were still students of IIT Kanpur.

So in my opinion, the real challenge is to convince someone to go slow, and ignore the competition. I recall we used to have a compulsory slow-paced program in the first year based on a diagnostic test. In this program, the student would do a particular course in a slow pace, learning the same material in two semesters, instead of one. One could do slow-paced learning in multiple courses also. The idea was that once the basics have been learnt well, it will be possible to learn other courses easily. But then there was an opinion that a forceful slow-paced program was causing stress. So we made it optional. The number of students choosing this program reduced substantially immediately, and the number of students in Warning and Probation increased, but because the slow-paced program was identified by outsiders as one of stress inducing issue, we could never make it compulsory again, and the numbers kept reducing, and finally we don't have any such program now.

The difference between stress due to competition and stress due to curriculum/academics-in-general is to be understood, and handled properly. If we do not understand this difference and keep reducing academics, we are only going to reduce the quality of education in our top institutions, without improving the experience of our students, and without making any dent towards solving the problem of excessive stress. 

There are other more important reasons why we should not report every such death as linked to academic stress. First, it is simply not true. Suicide is a very complex issue, and one does not take away one's life because of one reason. Even to the extent that one reason is a trigger, academics related reasons are for very few students.

And secondly, if we simplify the reason for suicide, we are encouraging other suicides. The phenomenon is known as "Copycat Suicide." Read more about it at this Wikipedia page. In short, when someone says that a student committed suicide because he had a low CPI of 5.0, it makes the other with CPI of 4.9 think of the same step. But if it is pointed out that suicide has complex reasons, including psychiatric and medical reasons, then the student with a lower CPI does not relate that suicide to his own situation.

And this brings to the most important issue - reporting of suicides. I was browsing the net for information on how to deal with suicides, and came across this site on how to report suicides. It tells us that there has been a lot of research on effect of reporting of suicides on the next suicide, and it is agreed today that it makes a significant difference. I hope our media is aware of it, though the signs are quite to the contrary. If you look at the recent reporting of two suicides this week, the media talked about a possible problem with some relationship as the cause (which itself was not proper, if you agree with the reporting norms suggested by the site mentioned above). But soon after the second suicide, the media was talking about academic stress causing a series of suicides in IITs, completely forgetting that just the previous day, the same newspapers had mentioned a different possible reason for a suicide.

There is no doubt that a lot of people, whether in media, our alumni and other stake holders, are genuinely concerned about 4-5 suicides a year in the IIT system. I only wish that they will report, discuss, debate and talk about the issue sensitively to make a positive impact on the situation, and not a negative one. The current reporting is putting pressure on the institutes to focus on academics, while the need is to look at it from a wider perspective.

Posted by Dheeraj Sanghi at 11:55 PM 


When reading about the issue, I had come across an article (I don't have the link as I had seen it long back), which explained a cause similar to that explained in your blog. It didn't blame the academic structure in itself, but it pointed out that students were not well equipped with stress-tackling methods. It began by pointing out that since most students in IIT, have spent a lot of time with their books and have mostly been toppers in their respective schools. Being put among the best does put them in a place like never before. Those who are not able to perform feel the heat of the competition, which is where the article talked about methods to tackle stress. For instance, the various co-curricular activities that one participates in can be seen as a way of tackling the stress. One might paint, sing or dance to relieve oneself of stress. But, the article claims, that a lot of those who committed suicide didn't delve into such activities in school and are hence unaware of its benefits. Also, students do not learn to share their problems with those around them, which too could help relieve them of stress.

Anirudh said...
Competition may not be just related to curriculum . One also faces competition in extra-curricular activities etc. But I agree with you it's not the course but the feeling of downward spiral that must be pushing the students to take this extreme step .

Saurav Jindal said...
One should also compare the suicide rate in IITs with the average in India. Average for India is 10.5 per 100,000. Which is not very different from the rate at IIT.

Dear Sir,

It seems that your article is pointing mainly towards the most recent suicide, so I'll only talk about that.

It is good to know that termination clauses have been changed in the institute. But the question still remains - "why termination?" on the basis of academics. Especially, why termination in the very first year! Terminating a student simply means that the institute is considering him/her a lost cause rather than dealing with the problem and finding a solution.

Now, you are personally taking the cases of handling the students under warning and AP, but what about other departments? I don't know if there are some set guidelines provided to the departments from the institute regarding how to deal with these termination case students. All I know is there will be a formal mail from HOD/DUGC requesting student to meet them. If the student goes then well and good, else he remains stuck with the problem. You need to realize that the communication gap between the HOD and student will be so huge prior to this email that the student would rarely reach his office. Why not introduce professional counseling or rather involve students. The following is what I shared recently on a social media -
"One solution that came to my mind was the concept of Departmental Student Guides - like the ones we see at the time of orientation. I am sure seniors will definitely volunteer to help their juniors. Even if there is one from each dept, he/she can talk to the under-performers and help them out."

PS : A technical doubt - Are the new policies also applicable to students who were admitted before introduction of policy?

One of the possible drivers for this is the loneliness. When I was doing masters at IITK, there used to be a under-graduate student from my state who is to come and spend time with me. He was a very quite person, doesn't interact with many. 1 or 2 years later he committed suicide. I just failed to understand why he did that from whatever I know of him. But to come to think of it later, I felt, he was a loner and probably something happened and he couldn't bare it.

Also our education system emphasizes on individual performance, while the industry needs people to work in groups.

Thus, the institutes should encourage and have several activities where students have to work in groups on projects. This will force them to interact/network with other students. And even better if the teams are changed with each such group activity. Put focus always on group activity and group performance.

This could to some extent address the loneliness as well as what industry needs look for.

I agree that counselling plays a major role in making people accept failures, small or big.

An year back, I was in Alumni Contact Program. While talking to an alumnus(I couldn't remember his name) regarding his days here at IITK, he was telling that a guy did a suicide attempt and all and then started asking that why these news give such reasons. The reputation of IITs as institutions is because of their degree of excellence of students. Why are these academic reviews doing so! I was shocked at his comment. He is currently working at TCS, America.

Jaya said...
One must not forget to look outside the institute for reasons suicide happens. This latest suicide happened apparently after the parents came to know about the termination and the guy did not think he could face him. He must have felt aimless, but for four months after termination, he hadn't committed suicide. Most people come to terms with the competitive environment inside the institute. Failing is not such a taboo amongst your peers inside the system, as it is amongst your family, neighbours and society back home! Until a young students finds the right support system back there, institute can do all it wants to reduce "academic stress" - stop teaching and taking exams altogether - such suicides can't be averted.

I wrote this three years ago. Unfortunately still holds true -

Dear Dheeraj,

>> " look at it from a wider perspective"

That's how you end the post. However, right while going through the very first paragraph, I (really) happened to get reminded of that other issue to do with suicides. It happened to receive a whole lot of spin in both political circles and media outlets a few years ago. I mean, the issue of farmers' suicides. Then, recently, some last year or so, somebody pointed out (and I forgot where I read it, but do remember that a pretty reliable source was cited) that the suicide rate among farmers, throughout the period of controversy, has actually been lower than that for the comparable bigger population groups (e.g. rural population taken as a whole or so).

So, first of all, I would like to know if the suicide rate statistics could be had for other comparable groups like UGs in programs like medicine, NITs, general undergraduate programs (like BA/BSc/BCom), MBAs, etc. Perhaps, it will help us place this issue in a better context.

Apart from that one bit, I don't seem to have anything further to contribute to this topic. The post, however, did shed a lot of light on quite a few recent developments. Thanks for sharing these.


I am on Facebook, and many students are in my friends' list. I often see a few of them obsessively reading IIT suicide stories whenever they are depressed. I guess many other IIT students do that as well. The media should indeed follow the guidelines for reporting suicide stories, as otherwise the cases of copycat suicide will certainly rise in future.

The basic problem with excessive media coverage about IIT suicide is that students think that dying is an acceptable escape from misery. They forget Feynman's last words: "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring."

Jaya said...

This paper by some of the alumni proposes some interesting things. I specially like the idea of separating counselling staff from academic staff and more communication with parents.


On an unrelated note, Dr. Sanghi, could you please consider disabling the captcha on comments if possible. They no longer make captchas for humans!! :) I am trying for a while to post this comment.

Sorry, Jaya, for inconvenience. I was getting so many spams, some strangely worded comments with links to various coaching classes, and worse sites. So even though the comments are moderated, it was a pain to even delete them, since the first few lines would be normal English sentences. So you had to read several lines and then figure out that it is a spam. But I guess I will remove spam during the moderation process.

cipher said...

Let us not assume that poor grades causes stress causes suicide. There are other hypothesis, like being depressed causes poor grades causes suicides. According to me, a much stronger and concrete way forward is, get a hotline/helpline - publicize it , remove stigma associated with mental health and let trained psychologists be made available. There is a lot going on in a 20 year old's life - studies, relationships, sexuality etc. Let us not confine this to academics.

sunil said...
In my humble opinion,In most of the suicide cases the reasons are personal and psychological where a person loses the drive to go on and tries to find the remedy to all his miseries in a flash by ending it all. IIT students are also human being and are part of the same society where euphoria of being seen as GOOD is more important than really being GOOD so I don't think it makes a special case for IITians, however sir, I found one para in the post absolutely enlightening , apt and dot-on and this issue should really be addressed by our policy makers

How right you are when you say "The difference between stress due to competition and stress due to curriculum/academics-in-general is to be understood, and handled properly. If we do not understand this difference and keep reducing academics, we are only going to reduce the quality of education in our top institutions, without improving the experience of our students, and without making any dent towards solving the problem of excessive stress.

amber said...
Dr. Sanghi,
I really appreciate you discussing such issues. You have really pointed out a lot of important points. I have a suggestion and a comment about this issue:

Students in India, unfortunately, are accustomed to coaching institutes from childhood. The environment of IITK being very different from high school, students sometimes find it confusing to deal with the situation. Having professional tutors/extra (informal) discussion classes held by people trained for such purposes, for those who are not performing well academically may be a good idea.
Apart from that, there may also be opportunities provided for group discussions with a chosen group leader. The group leader can be a student as well. The group leader may be given incentive to get official recognition from institute and maybe declare award for best group leader. The group leader may not be academically the best, but he/she should be understanding and compassionate by nature. The important point here is that this way students feel part of a group, and get a moral support apart from the academic support.
I have myself had group discussions with friends in my department (Chemistry) near exam time. The exam pressure that develops really gets eased when we are all sitting all in group studying with fun. Also after exam, we know that we are out there for each other.

A comment to which I do not have any concrete solution: In some instances, professors are not very considerate of the weak students. I do not mean by going slow in class for them, or not giving F grade for bad performance. These measures are required to maintain quality of education.
In strong sense, I am referring to situations where a prof. publicly humiliates a student. For that, I feel there should be some mechanism in place where a student can go and complain against the professor.
In a weaker sense, if the prof. shows some compassion and tries to reach the student not performing too well, that may go a long way. If a student, who is considered eligible by the system to do a course is not doing well, there should be sincere effort put in understanding the reasons for it.
I feel that peer pressure of friends plays an important role as you point out. But such pressure from faculty also plays some role.

Thanks again,
Amber Jain

This blog( blog is going viral on facebook in IITK community. I find it interesting, but I am not sure whether it's totally relevant to the present discussion.

Manohar Kuse said...
Had come across this story of an low-performing IITK graduate who had suicidal thoughts but now leading an excellent life.

Umesh said...
I agree with the point being made. Suicide does not have a simple answer, it is a complicated thing where different factors interact with each other.
I am really glad about some of the reforms introduced in IITK academic system. Measures like withdrawing from a course, not having the whole series of F on your grade sheet are really good.
And finally, I understand the reason why DUGC keeps asking you to do repeat the course that you failed twice. I agree with the reason in principle but again, the result will be dependent on the individual and perhaps DUGC should explain the reasoning. See the blog post The student's F in TA101 and B.Tech. project was result of what went inside him, rather than his ability. It would have better to listen to him and let him finish TA101 in his final semester. But again, that is an exception rather than the norm.
In relation, any person (not just IIT student) is most vulnerable when the TRUST breaks. No one can do anything in those moments, except his close friends and that is if he is willing to share it with them. The 1st 24 hrs are crucial and if you are supported by family/friends, then your survival instincts kick in. You still need support, but unlike 1st 24 hrs, you are less vulnerable. Again this is a personal opinion and only experience I have is being party to a triangular love affair breakup at one point in IIT.
I do agree with the rat race. The reason for depression isn't the tough curriculum or academics and not even the huge Fs sometimes your professor hands out. It is comparison with others. You compete against some of the best in India and even if you are giving your best performance, you may end up getting a C. What is important is that you must give your best and learn, rather than focusing on just the Grades. I have had courses, where I learned more from a course, in which I had a C than a A. Same way, it is important for professors to focus on teaching rather than announcing at large to class about grades. (Though I agree that lot of times student just cares about grades).
Finally, really thanks Dr. Sanghi for explaining in detail the measures taken by IITK in terms of academics. These are news that doesn't get published by media at all.

I think this problem is due to another cause.The one of starting a rat race and being forced to be a part of it right from childhood and all the credit goes to coaching institutes and parents who actively encourage such culture. These coaching institutes raise the so called standards of students and ultimately make makes them slip into the IIT system when they really do not deserve being in it and many cannot even cope with being in it therefore making the joy of being in an IIT short lived.
It is important to note that people who can cope with such heavy competition present in the IITs and can perform based on their natural talent and not on repetitive magai in the coaching.

And another major point I want to make is that these people do not and cannot take their academics seriously but still expect themselves to pass in the courses because they have no interest to learn the course or excel in a given field and all that they want is a high paying job (mostly non core) to which IITs unfortunately seem to be a shortcut and which seems to be the root cause of the rat race most of the parents are subscribing to without knowing anything about the real interests of their kids.

I realised that people think that IIT preceeded by coaching for IIT is an easy and guaranteed returns path for all those who do not have their path still decided! (but the goal is $$!)

Skartik said...
In my opinion, there should be some mechanisms to vent out frustrations and increase interactions, particularly in times of depression.
For interactions, something of the sort of student confession courts could be created where a selected few could go out and express their grievances.
Also there could be specific places in campus where students could shout and vent out their emotions. Maybe, some sort of shouting rooms could be build on the campus.