Friday, May 5, 2017

Preventing Student Suicides

Youth is supposed to be a time of maximal exuberance. When a person reaches late teens, s/he starts breaking off the limitations of childhood but is yet to form the barriers of adulthood. It is a time to enjoy life in multiple dimensions and also acquire the skills that will be useful for later life. This is also a time when a human being is supposed to enjoy the best health conditions, both physically and mentally. But unfortunately, over the last decade or so, the problems of adulthood have started plaguing human beings during their days of youth. Diabetes and heart attacks are no longer the problems of old age and have taken hold over many people in their 30s and 40s. And so is the case with mental ailments. Stress and depression have become almost as common as cough and cold. And these problems have also led many students to take the extreme step of committing suicide. And this is not just at ordinary colleges but at the most premier of our institutions. Many of our best and brightest are suffering from these problems at very acute levels. 

The most popular solution to this problem seems to decrease the academic work load of the students. Though this seems to be in the right direction, by itself it is bound to fail since it just ends up creating a vacuum which the students can't fill by themselves. The academic pressure is not so much because there are too many courses to do, but mainly because there are too many other things to do and its very hard to prioritise things and allocate time appropriately. And, specially in engineering, added on to that is the strong disconnect between what is being taught and what will actually get them jobs. This problem of student depression and suicides is a very deep problem and requires a very far sighted approach. Measures implemented in a haste without careful consideration can actually add on the problem instead of solving it.

Why does a person commit suicide? The specific reasons can widely vary but there is an underlying commonality in all these. Firstly, such a person is faced with a problem that strongly bothers him/her at the very core. Secondly, s/he looses hope that this problem will ever get solved. To be more precise, in the person's perception, the time-scale over which the problem is likely to be solved is much longer than the time-scale of his/her patience. So there are two fronts on which we need to address this issue. The first aspect is to implement measures so as to reduce the chances of students facing such unsurmountable problems. The second aspect is to give them faith that problems can be resolved no matter how hard they appear to be. 

It is important to note that reducing students' burden is a double edged sword. On one hand, it can help alleviate stress but if done beyond a certain limit, it can also breed incompetency and laziness. There are also many aspects of this approach which make it quite complicated. Firstly, it is often hard to decide where the safety limit lies, specially because this limit varies widely for different people. Secondly, students experience problems from many different sources and academics is often only a part of their experience. There are issues related to family, relationship, career and many other factors often outside the control of educational institutions. 

As someone rightly said, "Faith is like wifi, it’s invisible but it has the power to connect you to what you need". Though we cannot really prevent students from facing difficult problems, we can surely do many things to give them faith and increase their patience and confidence levels. Faith and patience can be enhanced by both external and internal channels. The external channels are mainly friends, family and psychologists. And internal factor is one's own Self. In the 21st century, life has become so fast and busy that people hardly have time for each other. Most people are so occupied with their own stuff that they seldom spend time in having a free conversation with their own friends and family members. Even when friends and family members get together in one place, most of the time is usually spent on mobile phones or television. Consumption of alcohol and drugs has also become a major way of killing time with friends and numbing down nerves. 

The first thing that needs to be done to alleviate stress and impart faith in our young generation is to encourage free conversations where people learn to listen to each other patiently. Our media and politicians are also partially responsible for causing this problem since in order to make themselves heard, they just create too much noise which can be quite harmful to the human mind. It is very unfortunate but many people these days just don't know how to have a good conversation. We need to to teach our students the art of presenting their thoughts in a coherent way and also infuse the patience to listen to others with an open mind. We have so many platforms for debates and public speaking, but hardly any platform for encouraging discussions. Every school and college should have a discussion club where open conversations on various issues related to the students and society are held on a regular basis. Discussions also need to be encouraged in our classrooms. Listening to lectures for 15 hours every week can have a deafening effect on the human brain. And frankly speaking, teachers can't be as entertaining as Aamir Khan! All educational institutions should strongly encourage teaching through the Socratic Method, where learning is imparted through discussions instead of lectures.

Sometimes problems become too aggravated to be solved by simple conversations. In such cases, expert intervention is required and it can be through either a psychiatrist or a psychologist. There is an important difference between the two. A psychiatrist is meant to address more brain issues where medication is required whereas a psychologist is meant to address more psychological issues where professional conversations (counselling) can resolve the problem. There are surely many people who need medical intervention for solving mental issues, but a much larger number of people need psychological help. However, unfortunately, the number of good psychologists and counsellors in India is quite low. It is very important for the government to undertake steps to set up training schools which can produce good psychologists and counsellors in the required numbers. Mental health should be given a top priority in all the reputed medical schools of our country. 

A very important pathway for generating faith and patience goes through the internal channel, which is one's own inner Self. If a person is connected with his/her inner core, it is very unlikely that s/he will be discouraged or depressed for long periods of time. Small ups and downs are inevitable and are very much a part of life. In the Indian subcontinent, many well-tested methods of connecting with our inner Self (broadly called Yoga) have been developed by our sages but, unfortunately, these methods are not being openly taught to our students due to various historical reasons. It is only over the last few years that an interest has grown in learning Yoga and slowly these teachings have started penetrating our institutions. But still there is a very long way to go. Most reputed colleges in India have allocated huge amount of space for playing many kinds of sports, but there is hardly any space dedicated to practicing Yoga. Here it is important to note that practice of Yoga is not fruitful when done in a random fashion at random places. It needs a certain kind of ambience which needs to be maintained very carefully. It is very important for the government to encourage all educational institutions to provide a dedicated space for learning and practicing various Yogic techniques. 

Implementing the above measures to whatever extent possible will go a long way in addressing the grave problem that our society is facing. We cannot afford to loose the precious lives of our students in such a frivolous manner. 


  1. I completely relate to the problem and agree that decreasing the study hours is not the solution. This critical age is precisely when the students enter college so the first two years in college are very crucial until they mature. Thus, universities have to take responsibility for getting the students through those critical years. While decreasing course work might not be the solution but giving them the right set of skills such as time-management, managing their newly discovered independence from parents, making new friends and forming support groups with team projects, peer group mentoring, learning about human values and dealing with stress, is most important. Universities are doing little on that front. Some of this type training should be included as part of the curriculum in the first two years and may come at the expense of traditional hard core engineering and science courses.

    Ashok Saxena
    Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Dean Emeritus
    University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, USA

    1. Thanks for your comments, Prof. Ashok! I agree with your points and would like to particularly stress on this one, "Some of this type training should be included as part of the curriculum in the first two years and may come at the expense of traditional hard core engineering and science courses."

      Given the fact that most of our students decide on their engineering branch without any domain knowledge, it anyways doesn't make much sense to start teaching them engineering right away. Our system doesn't do anything much to help students in making rational choices and that in some sense contributes a lot to creating these problems of stress.