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

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By Natasha Narwal:


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“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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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