College students are one of the most vulnerable groups of people who could be prone to mental health issues. According to a study, around 37% college students in India are suffering from depression or some form of mental illness. India also has one of the highest student suicide rates in the world, and on an average, one student commits suicide every hour, according to the data presented by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The pressure to get into a good university, coupled with the stress to score good grades as well as parental expectations and immense competition to do well, all result in students leading stressful lives. Other issues facing students include problems in relationships, family and economic troubles, bullying and discrimination which in turn affects their performance negatively and can result in mental health issues.
Sadly, mental health issues among students often go unnoticed by parents, teachers, friends and sometimes, by the those suffering themselves. Lack of awareness, the absence of counsellors or psychologists in universities and the stigma associated with mental illness prevent students from getting the help they need. Often, students suffering from depression or other kinds of mental health issues are faced with phrases like, “get over it”,“it’s all in your head”, or “there’s no such thing such as depression.” Many people also believe that mental illnesses are first world problems and that students suffering from such problems are privileged and spoilt who are “just wasting their parents’ money.”
A student of BMS College of Engineering in Bangalore, who prefers not to be named, recalled his experience of how he had to resort to social media forums to deal with his depression because his college had no counsellors or mental health services. He said, “College is very different from school, and often many people crumble to the pressure of academics or personal issues. Personally speaking, I had to reach out to this social media page called ‘The Artidote’ when I was facing the blues, just because there was no support system in my college. I believe that it is very crucial to address this issue because no one ever talks about it.”
Similarly, Pulkita, a student of VS Dental College in Bangalore recalled how professors ignored students who were facing mental health issues. She stated, “As students of dentistry, we deal with a lot of theoretical and patient work. I have seen many of my seniors cry because they weren’t able to cope up with the pressure. However, instead of talking to them, the professors choose to just ignore the students. While some of them seek help from outside, many of them just cry and put up with the stress.”
Majority of the colleges and universities in India are reluctant to bear the costs of hiring counsellors or providing mental health services. This stems from the fact that mental illness is a stigmatized topic and therefore, there is no discussion about it. The college administrations and faculty members are also often ignorant about it, and it is not uncommon for them to perceive students struggling with mental health issues as ‘crazy.’
However, the scenario seems to be changing slowly. More and more universities are now hiring counsellors and have mentorship programmes to help students deal with stress and mental health issues. For instance, Ashoka University in Sonipat has a Centre for Well Being, where students can book appointments through an online portal and meet a counsellor. The Centre also has a helpline number on which students can call if they are feeling anxious or stressed. Ambedkar University in Delhi has a clinic named Ehsaas, which not only helps the students and staff at the University with psychological issues but also children from nearby schools suffering from behavioural problems. Similarly, premier institutions such as the IITs, SRM, Shiv Nadar University (SNU), Manipal, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Jamia Millia Islamia have similar facilities for counselling and mentoring students as well as faculty members who may be dealing with depression, stress and related issues. Delhi University too, has a counselling facility though most colleges under it don’t have any counsellors.
A positive step undertaken by the government regarding the crisis of mental illness in India is the approval of the Mental Health Care Bill. The bill, which will be passed in July this year is progressive in many ways, such as decriminalizing suicide, granting autonomy to mentally ill patients regarding the choice of treatment, protecting the rights of patients and maintaining minimum standards of care. However, a lot more work needs to be done, since mental health is largely a taboo in India. More and more universities need to realize that mental illnesses do exist and cannot be dismissed by calling them ‘first world problems’ or students are ‘crazy’ or ‘overreacting.’ Many students are unable to afford the costs of seeking help from outside, therefore, it is important for institutes for higher education in India to counsel or mentor students and guide them on how to deal with academic and social pressure in college.