“I didn’t understand what it was.”
Like most students around the world, the last year of high school was incredibly stressful for me. I was worried about my board exams and my future. I was scared of making bad decisions. I couldn’t sleep properly, I had nightmares every night. At least once a week I would wake up somewhere else in the house because I’d been sleepwalking.
In school, there were times when I would feel like I was floating above my classroom, not really a part of any discussion. I either ate too much or too little. My lack of sleep made me irritable and prone to lashing out at my friends, who themselves were going through a lot.
Around the time, I also started getting spasms in my body at moments of extreme stress, which made me look like I am having a fit. Though in writing it seems obvious that something was wrong, honestly, I did not realise it. I just really wanted to work hard and succeed in something. I knew I had stress, but so did everybody else. I did not want to draw attention so I didn’t say anything. Little did I realise that my actions and words spoke for themselves.
Cut to a year later. I was in college, wondering if indeed I had made the wrong decision to stay in India, and not study abroad like my sister. These doubts were prompted by difficulties I faced in adjusting to hostel life and also my growing dislike for the stream I had chosen – Computer science engineering. The jerking became worse. I stopped eating and fainted in my Chemistry lab. I wore a grey t-shirt and jeans every day and tied my hair up with one of those rubber bands you use to roll up chart paper. Music, any kind of music, made me want to puke. I didn’t look at myself in the mirror because I knew how terrible I looked.
When I cried on the phone to my friend, he suggested seeing one of the counsellors in college. At this time, I desperately wanted help and I agreed. I told my counsellor all of my concerns. I talked for over an hour about why I felt my current college and degree was not right for me. I told her I couldn’t do anything anymore. I went to her for a month, and every time I brought up transferring out of college she diverted the discussion and started focusing on what I could do to make my life in college better. I realised then that her job was to make sure that I did not quit. Her job was to make sure I was healthy and functioning, so that I did not do anything that made the college look bad. She was employed by them, after all.
Anyway, I took a week off and travelled with my parents. I got a little better every month, not because of the counselling, but because of the support of my family and friends. I also think my own determination to get better played a huge role, but that determination is hard to find, and even harder to hold on to, as I know all too well.
When I went home for vacations, my mother told me something that has stayed in my mind ever since. She said, “You are still carrying your stress from Class 12. That year was so terrible for you that you haven’t got over it yet.” When I thought about it, I was shocked to realise she was right. I hadn’t let go of the fear I felt over a year ago, and I was just adding to it as the months went by. Had I realised what I was going through then, I could have avoided a lot of what I call ‘downtime’, i.e., time that I’ve been depressed. But I didn’t know what I was going through, and I didn’t think it was important to take care of my mental health as well as my physical health. I did not want to use that ugly word to describe myself; I did not want to say “I’m depressed. Please help me.”
Chances are that if you are a college student in India, you can relate to what I went through, either directly or indirectly. India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, among people aged 15 to 29 years. The major cause of depression among college students is stress. In 2013, “failure in examination” was the cause of 2471 suicides. Recently in Kerala, an 18-year-old student committed suicide after allegedly being harassed by college authorities for cheating. A medical student in Andhra Pradesh jumped off a building. It was found that she had been taking medication for depression prior to the suicide.As, Ms Shivani Manchanda, the counselling coordinator at IIT-Bombay, says, “There are three broad reasons for (depression) – One of the reasons no doubt is the high level of competition for admissions and then jobs that young students face. The second probably is how increasingly young adults in urban families are being brought up with a sense of entitlement and reduced sense of frustration tolerance and or resilience. The third is the stigma against the use of counselling which limits the help a young person can receive which potentially lowers the numbers of students who might otherwise utilise mental health services.”
To understand better, I spoke to three students, Tara, Ahana, and Alex*, about their experiences with depression in their colleges.
Tara (21) is a 4th-year biotech student, who on the surface looks happy and unbreakable, but has gone through the trauma of losing loved ones at a young age. When asked about the prevalence of depression in her college, she says, “Sure, there is depression, but there is no one kind of depression.”
When asked why she thought student depression is so common, Ahana (20) said, “Expectations from peers play a big role. I also think there is a lot of pressure you can put on yourself, which can lead to stress and depression.” Ahana is a 3rd-year Electronics and Communication Engineering student with above average grades, but an extremely shy and quiet personality.
In India, awareness of what depression is, and what to do to help someone who is depressed is low. The word ‘depression’ itself has been diluted, till its meaning is lost. “People use the words ‘depression’ and ‘sadness’ interchangeably,” Alex, a 3rd-year student, says. “Even if people do talk about it, they talk like it’s a fad, they don’t take it seriously.”“We know it’s there, but we don’t talk about it, we don’t do anything to fix it,” Ahana says. “I think we hesitate to seek help because we know people don’t want you to be a person who goes to therapy.” This brings us to the stigma of therapy in society. People feel like problems should be fixed “at home”, or by ourselves, when in fact, we may need external, professional help. As Ahana says, “Sometimes you need someone who doesn’t know you, who isn’t a part of your life at all.”
There is also a need to legitimise depression. When we as a society do not talk about depression seriously, we create doubts. “Is what I’m going through really that important? Will people laugh at me, or not try to understand? Is it stupid to ask for help?” These thoughts stop people from reaching out for help they might desperately need.
With student depression being such a prevalent problem, it only makes sense to explore the responsibilities of colleges in solving it. Most colleges have counselling departments with qualified professionals. Nevertheless, students hesitate to avail these services. In my experience, both the student and the counsellor can never forget that the counsellor is employed by the college. In counselling and therapy sessions outside colleges, the patient’s goals are in the spotlight. The importance is given to understanding the patient’s problems and working towards making them feel better. However, in my college counselling session, I could not help also thinking about the counsellor’s goals. Her goals were to make sure I was ‘content’ enough to not drop out or do anything else that would bring the college bad publicity.Students generally feel like they cannot trust their college counsellors. “Even if they are well-trained, their loyalty is towards the institution,” Tara says. “It will always be a teacher-student kind of relationship, which may not help.” She also thinks more people do not seek help from the college counsellors because of the kind of solutions they give. “We know they will see it in black and white. They ask questions like, ‘At what point of the day do you feel low?’. I don’t have a time like that. Everything they say is academic-oriented, they don’t really try to find out how you feel, they’re just there to help you get your grades up. I think it’s all right. I wouldn’t want any involvement (from the college). Because privacy matters.” Confidentiality seems to be a question mark, at least in the students’ minds.
Manchanda runs a Facebook page called ‘ICare IITB’. The page “provides students with motivation to be the best they can be”. At IIT Bombay, they focus on not only counselling but “preventive” mental health counselling. In her words, “Colleges need to offer one on one counselling but also actively look at outreach services which can increase the utilisation of support that students can receive. Considering the major root cause of stress amongst students may be academic in nature, workshops around skill building can be offered. Sometimes group skill building workshops are a better way of reaching larger numbers of students and busting myths around counselling.”
Although depression in college campuses seems inevitable and almost impossible to solve, it does not have to be that way. Colleges can do more to make their students feel comfortable in reaching out for help. I believe I am over my worst phase, but I know it can come back. There are good days and there are bad days, and it helps enormously that my friends understand that. That kind of support – the support that comes from awareness – can make all the difference. Colleges have a responsibility to raise this awareness and understanding among their students and faculty. It is time they take what we are going through seriously.
*Names have been changed