We are seeing a spate of suicides on our premier academic campuses in India and an increase in mental health issues. The world over, suicide is a terrible killer of young men and women. In 2019, as per the available statistics, 93,061 young adults died by suicide in India. In the US, in the same year, suicide emerged as the second major cause of death in college-age students. And, across the world, suicide is the second leading killer of women in the age group of 15 and 44 and the fourth in men. We seem to know many things about suicides among students, but not enough to prevent them.
Contrary to the general perception that most suicides are because of poor academic performance, suicides often involve multiple other factors such as relationship issues, lack of self-esteem, social isolation, fear-of-missing-out, family problems, and mental health issues. During the pandemic, there was at least a 20% increase in suicidal tendencies on the campuses. When it comes to availability of counsellors, psychiatrists and other mental health services, things are much better now than earlier. In reality, at least five times more suicides are prevented through these processes in our top institutions than what occur. However, we need to do more.
One problem is that there is so little awareness about mental health issues in society. Also, unlike cardiologists and oncologists who tend to know that certain types of heart ailments and tumours can cause death, mental health issues are not seen as contributors to the mortality rate. This raises a concern as to how much we really know about mental health issues and whether we are even allocating enough resources for a study of this subject. Today, if the student’s closest friends or parents do not know what’s going on in a student’s mind, and if the student refuses to make use of any of the resources available on the campus, it becomes very difficult for any institute administration to be of any help.
Here are a few pointers as to what can be done to prevent suicides on our campuses:
Improve student-faculty ratio: Indiscriminate increase in student strength (as supernumerary quotas) in our leading educational institutions, without an adequate increase in funding and resources, is a sure-shot recipe for disaster. We are seeing the impact of this in student stress on campuses. The class diversity in terms of learning abilities is vastly different now from what it used to be on our campuses. Add to this, the increase in class sizes to upwards of 400 students with a single instructor is not helping matters. Even where teachers are available, the physical infrastructure in terms of classrooms is a major issue today.
Develop a strong community feeling: There are enough scientific studies to show that the key to happiness lies in developing strong relationships and bonds. Students need to feel comfortable seeking help when needed. Encourage faculty, staff, students and alumni to look out for one another, and provide a sense of community and belonging. Have active NSS and NCC activities, community events, volunteering, support groups, and other activities that encourage social interaction.
Increase awareness about mental health issues: There is a need to remove the stigma about mental health issues. Educate students, staff, and faculty about the warning signs of suicide and how to support someone who may be struggling.
Make mental health services easily accessible: Given the issues with funding, we do not have enough counsellors and adequate mental health services on our campuses. Make it mandatory to maintain a certain ratio of students to counsellors and enforce it through regulations and accreditation/ranking processes. Ensure that services are culturally sensitive and inclusive of diverse student populations.
It is high time our students in premier institutions come out of their narrow social circles. For example, helping those who are underprivileged, helping a small shopkeeper go online, teaching in a school meant for underprivileged children and basically, knowing the suffering of people outside of their small social circles will go a long way in addressing this problem. Such interactions often make our own suffering look smaller and at times, even trivial. Facebook and other social media sites aren’t a true reflection of society as they tend to present only the happier side of society which sometimes aggravates depression tendencies in individuals. Students need to connect with the larger world outside.
Let’s all accept that mental health issues are treatable and curable. Awareness and a strong community connect is the key.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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