When Will We Stop Blaming Depression For Student Suicides And Address The Real Problem?

Posted on February 7, 2016 in Society

By Natasha Narwal:


Source: Flickr

“Did clinical depression kill Rohith Vemula or did a cultural cartel? There are reasons why ‘both’ does not make for a robust answer,” writes Manu Joseph in a recent article in Hindustan Times. According to him, it can’t be both and he argues that those who insist that he was pushed to suicide by the blatant and sickening caste discrimination in the University are denying him the right to his personhood, the right to be ‘clinically depressed’. “Is a Dalit activist allowed to be ‘clinically depressed’,” he asks.

The underlying assumptions of his argument are imagining one’s inner and outer worlds as water tight compartments and seeing clinical depression as a disease stemming from somewhere within the so-called inner world of a person’s mind. Is a ‘clinically depressed’ person allowed to be oppressed, one may ask Mr. Joseph. But he is not alone in his arguments and assumptions. The same logic was applied when 22-year-old medical student Jaspreet Singh in AIIMS, who was routinely failed in exams by one professor, committed suicide in January 2008. College authorities tried to put his suicide down to depression despite Singh explicitly mentioning said professor’s name in his suicide note.

Manish Kumar Guddolian, a 20-year-old Dalit student at IIT Roorkee, jumped to his death from the fifth floor of his hostel in 2011. The police again put the cause of death down to depression, but his family members had another story to tell of the many months of bullying he faced in college from a group of students who tried to put him down by calling him names like ‘chamar’ and circulating a video of his photos to be laughed at.

In all these cases, depression is cited as the ’cause’ of suicide in order to absolve everything else and shift the blame on a person’s individual psyche. The point is not to deny the existence of depression and its linkages to suicides (which cannot be captured by a simple cause and effect relationship), but rather to understand its very existence where it is not located only as an illness in someone’s individual psyche and ‘personal problems’. Though the equation of depression with a disease or an illness seems to give some relief to the people going through it as they can be relieved of the burden and stigma of being ‘weak-willed’ or ‘not being strong enough’ to be suffering and disintegrating thus. But ultimately it locates the problem within the person which one gets one fine day and which can be diagnosed and ‘treated’ and then one can be successfully reintegrated into ‘normal’ society.

Depression does not emerge in a vacuum but from the very pressures and travails of the ‘normal’ society with its codes of normative behaviours and expectations and life conditions. Higher education institutions today have become hubs of depression and suicides are only a very small and extreme manifestation of it. Though there aren’t any statistics available for Indian Universities yet, during the journey to an M.phil degree, what I have seen in my time at university is an epidemic of students struggling with what are called ‘mental health’ difficulties, every third person slyly looking for ‘help’ (counselling/medication) filled with guilt, shame and a sense of personal failure.

To understand this epidemic of depression among students, we need to look at and question the conditions of education in our higher education institutions. The constant pressures of scoring well, meeting deadlines, increasing workload, ideas of excellence, competition, alienation, lack of space to share or even understand the stresses and despair generated from such pressures are making students walking bundles of nervous wreck ready to break down at any moment. Add to these the rising fee, cutting of scholarships, pressures of funding one’s education (student loans), precarious futures (all part of the neo-liberal reorganisation of Universities) and you will get the recipe for a nervous breakdown. One can only imagine the emotional condition of students belonging to various marginalised and under-privileged backgrounds facing discrimination at so many levels in our Universities.

Now, there will be people who would say that these are very mundane problems of life and one’s got to deal with them. So thought the girl in my class who could not cope with the pressure of writing so many assignments, missed a few, started keeping ill most of the time, gradually stopped attending classes, had a nervous breakdown and left her education as the doctor deemed her ‘unfit’ for continuing. So thought a friend whose assignments were repeatedly given back to him because they were not within the prescribed word limits until he could not write any more, could not bear to go to classes out of shame, started failing exams, gave endless repeats and became suicidal.

There will also be people who would say that if these conditions in the Universities are responsible for pushing people into depression then why do some people suffer from depression and others don’t. Of course, depression is a very complex phenomenon and cannot be reduced to only a few causes. Its sources are multiple, layered, difficult to discern, but there are sources nonetheless located in our lives and its conditions. Succumbing to depression, or not, also depends on one’s coping mechanisms but they are also not created in a vacuum and are products and markers of the kind of support system one has, the kind of life one has led which very much depend on the socio-cultural and economic condition of one’s self and family.

It is high time that we stopped locating depression in personal failures or alternatively pathologising and seeing it as disease to be cured in a person’s psyche only. It is high time that we created space for even bringing out and discussing these emotions and traumas and understanding their linkages with conditions in higher education institutions (though of course, they are not confined to it). It is high time we saw Depression as a political story.