Dr Anjana Kannankara
Education is perhaps society’s most critical responsibility. Educational institutions today compete with each other to highlight infrastructure, efficiency in tackling the syllabus, lay emphasis on physical activities and how well they prepare students for placements. But unfortunately, our educational institutions and teachers may not be fully equipped to understand the mental health issues of students and ready them for social challenges.
The increase in the number of student suicides over the years is alarming. A reply in the Lok Sabha by HG Ahir, Minister of State for Home Affairs, on January 2, 2018, states that 9,474 students committed suicide in 2016, or a student suicide occurred every 55 minutes. Various reports show that student suicides have increased 52 per cent from a suicide every 84 minutes in 2007 to the current rate. Hence, we need to look seriously at the concern and the possibility of solution to counter the menace before it is too late.
Psychological concerns in children are on the rise, eventually leading to behavioural issues and suicides. Studies reveal that 12 per cent of Indian students between the age of 4 and 16 suffer from psychiatric disorders. 20 per cent show signs of mental disorders, out of which 2-5 per cent have serious concerns like autism or bi-polar disorder. Shockingly, every single hour a student commits suicide in India.
The situation raises serious concerns -Are we handling the issue properly as a society? Times undoubtedly have changed and the overexposure to media, internet, mobile phones, changes in family setup like having working parents and nuclear family structure have altered our lives altogether.
The qualities like adapting ability, determination or tolerance level exhibited by the earlier generation has vanished today! Instead the new generation is ruled by cut-throat competition, inability to cope with stress, excessive concern about marks and placements – all resulting in fear of failure. One cannot point the fingers merely on students for this tragic state. The society as a whole cannot be free from the guilt of shaping our kids like this.
Children and young adults have complicated emotional systems that are easily afflicted by behavioural, emotional, learning or mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, disruptive behavioural disorders, Intellectual Disability, Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. Depression and bi-polar disorder can be genetic and the indications may be obvious in childhood itself.
Environmental challenges lead to mental concerns as well: racial, sexual or religious discrimination, body-shaming, sexual challenges, emotional issues, low self-esteem or insecurities, family or financial problems, substance addiction, and even hormonal changes may play a part.
Pressure from parents or teachers to perform well in exams can also affect a child’s mental health. Being bullied by other kids or even a breakup with intimate friends can act as a trigger. At least in some cases, the real reason behind a student’s difficulties with concentration and learning may be ADHD which might be going unnoticed.
Mental concerns often manifest themselves as poor academic performance, lack of motivation, social interaction issues with peers or teachers, and even self-harm.
Many a time families stay away from treatments because of the stigma attached to mental issues. In India, parents undergo severe pressure to extract maximum performance out of their wards and secure their future by gaining admissions in the best colleges. It might be unfair to blame the parents blindly. Our society displays such mentality that a child not clearing entrance exams is considered substandard! Are we doing it right here? This attitude should go. It’s high time that we behaved as a responsible society by changing the stifling mindsets.
The youth are the future of any country and a progressive nation cannot afford its students falling into suicidal tendencies. Therefore, it becomes imperative to see how this delinquent issue can be managed in the future. The solution lies in students, teachers, parents and the society- all the stakeholders together playing an active part in ensuring mental well-being and also in transforming the perception about success and failure.
Parents must be watchful by analysing closely, the behaviour of their children, their likes, dislikes, opinions etc that they form over the years and understand how fragile the young one’s mental well-being is and be alert in continuously assessing it. Teachers certainly need to be trained in identifying symptoms and patterns of mental issues. If disruptive behaviour occurs from a child, these skills could be utilised to analyse the reason behind such behaviour.
Bernard Branson said that “rejection is an opportunity for your selection”. Students need to be taught that the first step to solve a problem is to know that there exists one and the examination system itself is a firm reminder that every problem is solvable.
The reassurance that there are many options to move ahead successfully will reduce the fear of failure. What students need to remember is that though the hopes and dreams of parents are vested upon their children nothing is dearer to them than the life of their child. There is a hidden danger of students exploiting the circumstance, and hence, the key is to employ the right approach with expert help. A deep and meaningful interaction between parents and kids must be maintained at all times.
To ease the pressure and motivate the students, educational institutions can include case studies of people who emerged successful after initially enduring suicidal thoughts. The list of such personalities is long, including Martin Luther King Jr. Including topics in the curriculum -about increasing suicidal tendencies in students, how it is morally wrong, a cowardly step, how it would devastate the family and how talking and sharing problems with parents, teachers, and friends can help in coming out of depression can be highly beneficial.
Also, educational institutions must have psychological counselling programmes to help students deal with their issues in confidentiality. The programmes must be flexible. Educators also need to play their part by shifting their role from merely imparting knowledge to rekindling the fire within every student.
Options of referring a student to a mental healthcare professional for timely intervention might be considered if need arises but caution must be exercised that the provision is not misused to harass or suppress the child. Treatment and recovery is definitely possible through efficient counselling, therapy and medication. There is also an urgent requirement of more qualified mental healthcare professionals to dedicate sufficient time patiently for each individual case and provide effective solutions.
Also, to ensure holistic well-being of children — physical, emotional and mental — society must sincerely endeavour to bridge the gap between the education sector and mental well-being. The education system that we follow today is like preparing elephants and mice for the same race. This evidently does not nurture the talents of all sections of students. Sadly, our examinations emphasise on testing what the students don’t know rather than what they know!
The need of the hour is a complete reformation in our education and social system. Education system must not be one which students find to be calustrophobic but one which caters to the needs of all; that which gives the freedom to think and confidence to stand tall in the face of adversities.
Life essentially has much more to offer beyond exams or marks. Our students must realise that our success and failure is defined by us and not by the society. Let’s initiate a fresh start. Let’s be the support system of our kids; see their minds, understand their wishes; most essentially awaken them to the value of precious life and remind them to not forget to live their own lives to the fullest.
(The author is director, TGL
Foundation, and chairperson, CSA)