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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Alarm bells by Prankti Mehta Kadakia - Hindustan Timese paper

  • 28 Oct 2015
  • Hindustan Times (Mumbai)
  • Pankti Mehta Kadakia

CAUSE FOR CONCERN With two students suicides at IIT-Madras in the past four weeks, a look at prevention methods across Indian campuses, when peer counselling is most effective, and what institutes can do to help

‘But one day, I cracked. I bunked morning class, was crying in my room… I took a towel, tied it to the fan, tied a noose, apologized mentally to my parents and sister, and tried to hang myself…’


After dealing with two suicide cases in four weeks on the IITMadras campus, student Pankaj Joshi (name changed) wrote about his struggle with depression for the institute’s online campus magazine, The Fifth Estate, on October 20.

‘Every day was pure agony’, writes Joshi. ‘I would sit clueless, watching others answer things that seemed like alien language to me. Class after class, slot after slot, I would just sit…lost. People at my internship didn’t respond to any mail…my mind was going into overdrive – what did I want to do with my life? Was I squandering my IIT opportunity?... Which top university will accept me with an early-8-point CGPA (which was threatening to go even lower)? I pretty much hated every second of every day.’

The two suicide cases, of MTech student Nagendra Kumar Reddy on September 21, and BTech student Rahul G Prasad on October 19, have raised several questions. No official data is available on IIT suicides, but according to a blog called Suicides at IIT, run to raise awareness about the issue, 76 IITians have committed suicide since 1981 — 15 in 2014, and seven in 2015, so far.

“In the past five years, at least five students I know have chosen to end their lives — we do not know how many failed in their attempts,” says Arya Prakash, an integrated MA in English studies student at IIT-Madras. “What has gone wrong in an institution that claims to provide professional counselling services as well as peer-to-peer counselling, where the Guidance and Counselling Unit was renamed ‘Mitr’ [friend]?”
“A large problem is that students and administration both assume that the suicide victim had difficulties in dealing with academic stress or with handling a relationship. As the blame is shifted to the individual, there is little reflection on the academic structure as a whole,” adds Veena Mani, a PhD scholar in humanities and social sciences at IIT-M.

While IIT-Madras is in the spotlight currently, similar cases prevail at various other IITs, and to a lesser degree, institutes across the country.

“Even at a social sciences institute like ours, we have had a few cases of suicide,” says Amita Bhide, professor and dean of the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Chembur. “Now, the stressors on students are so many — in addition to family and relationship issues, they are trying to build a career, pay off education loans, get placements that befit expectations, etc. Unfortunately, some students buckle under this pressure.”

At the IITs and in medical colleges, academic stress is a large factor for suicides, say experts.

“Suicides at institutes like the IITs and AIIMS make news, but there are cases at various other colleges that may not,” says Shobhana Mittal, attending consultant psychiatrist at the Cosmos Institute of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences (CIMBS). “This is a vulnerable time for students, when their roles and hormones are changing, along with their environment.”

“Most undergraduate BTech suicides (ages 16 to 21) are due to academic stress, the inability to cope and the shock of failure and its ramifications,” says Ram Krishnaswamy, a retired engineer and IIT-M alumnus, who runs the blog Suicides at IIT. 

“Add to this sexuality issues, relationship breakups, financial woes, drug and alcohol issues, and above all, mental health issues as depression and anxiety.”

A study published earlier this month by CIMBS says that 51.6% college students in Delhi have anxiety problems; 17.8% admitted to having suicidal thoughts; 64.6 % experienced depressive symptoms; 51.8% students felt overburdened by the academic pressures and career uncertainties.

“While this was a survey of 500 students from across Delhi’s institutes, considering that they come from all over India, it is indicative of students across the country,” says Mittal. THE ROAD AHEAD While most colleges — including the IITs — have strong counselling services, not many students willingly come forth to seek them.

“We have measures already in place — we provide counsellors, psychiatrists, even informal services from student volunteers — but the suicides still happen,” says Bhaskar Ramamurthy, director, IIT-Madras. “Students need to be forthcoming and avail of these services too. There is a stigma attached to seeking counselling.”

“We are taking several measures to try and remove this stigma,” says Soumyo Mukherji, dean of student affairs at IIT-Bombay, which saw a suicide case in May this year. “These suicides are a symptom of a larger, deeper problem, and we need to tackle the root cause of depression.”

I I T- B, Mukherji says, is working on hiring more counsellors, with different kinds of specialisations. They will also have student mentorship programmes, where a senior mentor can report a junior’s sudden fall in performance, erratic behaviour or other tell-tale signs.

“After recent suicides, the college has put in constant efforts to raise awareness about the issue. We've had stress management workshops and there has been an increase in the number of counsellors. Maybe the professors showing a little more empathy towards students could help bring a change," says Nilesh Bansod, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at IIT-Bombay.

According to Krishnaswamy, institutes should take a serious look at measures taken in universities in the UK, US and Australia, “instead of trying to reinvent the wheel”. These include prescribing self-help books, online counselling programmes, guided meditation, and regular counselling.

“Academic pressures in the west are ruthless too, but the circumstances are different,” says Mukherji of IIT-B. “There, students can take 10 years to graduate if they want. In India, especially at the IITs, you are using government resources. It is impossible to afford students who take only one or two classes a semester and spend years on campus, when there are so many more waiting for that seat.” PEER COUNSELLING KEM Medical College in Parel has workshops for students and faculty on suicide prevention. They are taught to identify signs of depression, how to get a depressed student to talk, and so on.

“This has really worked for us — we have seen so many cases where peers report depression in other students,” adds Shubhangi Parkar, dean at the institute.

At IIT-Delhi, similarly, students are coached to bring to notice signs of depression in their peers.

“Recently, minor exams were coming up and a student disappeared,” says SK Gupta, dean of student affairs at IIT-Delhi. “His friends immediately reported this to the authorities.”
However, some students are concerned that peer counselling is not entirely effective.

“Mitr’s method involves peer-to-peer counselling, and only some cases are referred to professionals. I am doubtful about this, as firstly, untrained people — or those with little training — are dealing with deep psychological issues,” says Veena Mani, a PhD scholar in humanities and social sciences at IIT-M. “I have been told that students find it hard to trust Mitr volunteers, as most of them are moralistic in their approach, and students feel that they will tell professors about issues they think can affect their grades.”

“Frequent checks should determine whether they are being implemented effectively,” adds Prakash of IIT-M. “For instance, if the volunteers are going to be judgmental about things like relationships or alcohol, it defeats the purpose.” 
(With inputs from Damini Priya)