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.
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.