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Why Are Student Suicides On A Rise? The Answer May Lie In Unrealistic Academic Standards

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TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE

Recently, board results were declared in India. The sad news is that at least 20 students have died by suicide in Telangana itself possibly due to poor performance. Similar incidents were reported from other states also.

Apart from the board results, every year we come across the news of students committing suicide because of their failure in competitive entrance tests like the IIT-JEE. Such news repeats itself every year, only the statistics change. Such incidents pass largely without significant emphasis or prominence in public discourse. It also does not occupy the central stage in public debates and policy making.

In our society, student suicide, housewives’ suicide, etc. gets sidelined over political issues and is not taken seriously. Whereas farmer suicides take precedence in news reporting owing to their political nature (farmers are a major voting section during election season). Political will in India is informed by electoral logic and this population lot (farmers) is significant for the electoral schema of any political party. Also, public perception exists that farmers’ suicides are the most common form of the malady. It is partly due to media’s emphasis on this vulnerable group as it exposes the inaction of political class and also because it resonates with the livelihood issues of larger section of our population. However, in this case also, suicide as an issue in itself gets neglected.

It perpetuates a narrative that reduces suicide to a manifestation of economic distress. This portrayal fails to sufficiently explain the cause and spread of suicide and does not even address the all important questions of its prevention. Take the example of Rohit Vemula. Although the case galvanised a political wave, the public outburst and widespread media attention were simply against the rampant discrimination against lower-caste Dalits. It couldn’t bring the core issue of suicide to the fore and was sidelined in the agenda of electoral politics.

Let us concentrate on the issue of student suicides (especially those in Class 10 and 12). Here, I see the failure of India’s education system. Every year, we see the number of high-scorers at the school level skyrocketing. It’s good to be thrilled over these incredible scorecards, but I wonder if it really gives the true picture of students’ abilities. I don’t know how written words can be perfect ones, especially when it includes subjects like arts, sciences, and the languages. When the same students start preparing for competitive exams, their abilities receive a reality check and often they can’t tolerate this.

Consider the example of Kota, which is considered to be the coaching capital of India but is gradually becoming a suicidal hotspot for students. Based upon almost-perfect scores, parents burden their kids with unrealistic goals and heap unrealistic praise onto them. Rather than boosting their self-esteem, it gives a false sense of self. It puts pressure on kids and can lead to crippling fear of failure or rejection.

Students attend class at the Bansal Classes in Kota
Students attend class at the Bansal Classes in Kota, in Rajasthan. (Photo: REUTERS/Ahmad Masood)

Unable to cope with failure and being apprehensive about letting their family down, a number of students resort to end their lives. It exposes the emotional cost at which we are making our students chase the family’s expectations beyond their abilities. Also, kids are pampered a lot nowadays. The perception that being unhappy is an abnormal condition creates a lot of inner turmoil. They don’t know how to confront emotions like sadness, frustration, guilt, disappointment, etc. and hence, are not able to comprehend that facing such emotions is a part of learning life skills.

Today’s generation has immersed themselves in the fascinations of the digital world (smart phones and social media). It lets them escape uncomfortable emotions like boredom, loneliness, and sadness. Apart from avoiding discomfort, it also takes away the opportunities to develop mental strength, and coping skills which are needed to handle everyday challenges are never gained.

Take the example of social media. Rather than bonding with real people, kids turn to this virtual world of social media. Although it gives the breadth of friendship on the social network, it does not provide the same depth of intimacy as in the real bonding and instead, a false sense of connection.

Coming back to Kota, there is another psychological aspect to be considered. When these students arrive in the city, they suddenly find themselves amid unknown people and devoid of emotional or moral support from parents and the peer students. In addition to the feeling of being stressed and pressurized, it’s also difficult for them to strike a close bond of friendship when lakhs of them are competing against each other.

Media reporting may also a contributing factor in making suicide as a socially and ethically justifiable way (in the students’ mind) to cope with failure. The depiction of suicide in media can often be irresponsible and inappropriate. This includes detailed descriptions of suicidal acts like reporting unusual methods of suicide, showing pictures or information about the method used, covering celebrity suicides through sensational/dramatic headlines, etc. It normalizes suicide as an acceptable coping medium to emotional crisis, leading to imitative suicidal behaviours.

When one is contemplating suicide, a lack of solace or adequate support from families or social institutions may internsify whatever the person is going through. It is saddening to me that this happens more often than not.

Suicide is a complex issue where socio-economic, cultural, familial and psychological causes are intertwined. It asks for a multi-sectoral action and collective efforts from all stakeholders including immediate family members, public health planners, policymakers, administration and NGOs. The administration should issue guidelines to schools, coaching institutes, etc. such as weekly off to students, fee refunds (in case they want to withdraw from their current course after realizing their true potential/career option), facilitating recreational activities (sessions on yoga, meditation and spiritualism can provide mental equilibrium), etc.

There is also a need for regular monitoring to ensure strict compliance. The panacea for this also lies in raising awareness about mental health and life skills education and these topics should be incorporated into the school curriculum. If children are not aware of these disorders in their formative years (when they are likely to experience more stress and emotional turmoil), how can they be able to cope with it or seek help? The emphasis should also be on the need for better parenting during emotional crises. Humiliations meted out (or just a thought of it) in schools or in social circles are also among the other factors because of which self-esteem decreases.

Educational institutions should recruit trained counsellors and mental-health professionals who can assist students at the onset of emotional and mental problems so they do not escalate into full-fledged diagnoses. Recently, an IAS officer shared his report card on Facebook and advised kids against resorting to suicide. It sends a strong message that parents/kids should not get trapped in this number game of marks and should comprehend the fact that marks are just a passing phase and not the final stamp over anybody’s calibre.  There are more meaningful things to aim for and students should not get disheartened or lose hope, because failures are often the stepping stones to success.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Prasad Gori/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
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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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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