Back in 2018 and 2019, when 24-year-old Mouli (name changed) was a student at Kota's Allen Career Institute preparing for NEET, she lost her father. As she reached out to a counsellor at the institute to process her grief, they told her: "don't think so much," "focus on your studies."
This was the last thing that Mouli wanted to hear, she tells FIT.
(Trigger Warning: Descriptions of suicide. If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs.)
Jatin Wadhwani, 24, who studied at Vibrant Academy between 2015 and 2016, had a similar experience when he was preparing for the IIT-JEE. His institute had one counsellor whom students could seek academic help from.
"If we reached out to anyone for any issue, the one answer they had for everyone was, 'Suicide mat karna bas' (Just don't kill yourself)."Jatin Wadhwani
Not much has changed on these campuses in the last eight years, students – both current and former – tell FIT. We reached out to counsellors and students to understand how the process of 'therapy' unfolds in these coaching centres, and why 'process' is of no help to students in distress.
Problematic Job Descriptions for Counsellors
A student of Unacademy in Kota, Abhigyan lists many factors that add to the anxiety of students training for competitive exams – from identifying students by ranks instead of names, to feeling lonely in their non-sharing rooms, and sleeplessness due to the stress.
But the 15-year-old, who moved to Kota a few months ago, points out that support from the counsellors is far from what could actually help the students. Him, and multiple students whom FIT spoke to, alleged:
The counsellors are not trained in dealing with distress.
They are not accessible.
Their responses sometimes do more harm than good.
A spokesperson for Bansal Classes told FIT that they have trained psychologists. The catch? The chief mental health counsellor that FIT spoke to – Akhilesh Jain – is not a psychologist by training.
Akhilesh did claim, however, that he has done 'diploma courses in stress' over the years.
"If you're counting numbers, 23 is not as critical as you're making it out to be. I will bet that your city had more suicide cases last year than Kota. It's not the coaching centres that are making students take their lives. If academics was the reason, students would die by suicide after their 10th and 12th class results, there's more failure there."Akhilesh Jain, Chief Mental Health Counsellor, Bansal Classes, Kota
In an email to FIT, the spokesperson for Allen said that they require all their counsellors to hold at least a postgraduate degree in psychology. But the job description that FIT accessed from their website, earlier in September, tells a different story – it simply called for applications of people who had "strong communication and counselling skills."
Aakash, another coaching institute, was also looking for counsellors with no prerequisite knowledge of managing crisis situations. This job was posted by Aakash on 16 August.
In Rao IIT Academy, the institution was not even looking for a qualified mental health professional. Below was the job posting on their website, however, it did not mention the date of advertisement.
Disparity in Number of Counsellors Being Hired
The problem, however, lies not just in the quality of counsellors being hired, but also the number of counsellors hired, in line with students raising concerns about the accessibility of these counsellors. According to data for academic year 2023-2024, accessed by FIT:
Amid Many Problems, Cry for Help Often Goes Unheard
Abhigyan tells FIT, "Most of the time, we approach our favourite teachers when we struggle with anything. But if we don't score well, the teachers don't even look at us."
Twenty-three-year-old Anaya (name changed on request), a PR executive based in Noida, who was a student at Career Point Gurukul between 2018-2019, agrees with Abhigyan.
She alleges that she faced caste discrimination during her time in Kota, with her peers purportedly sprinkling gangajal (holy water) wherever she sat. They would also "boycott" her in the mess, she alleges.
But was there someone she could reach out to when she was struggling with all this? No, she says. The teachers wouldn't care and the warden would scream, she tells FIT.
"Our coaching organised a counselling session once in the entire year. And there were so many students in the queue that by the time my turn came, the counsellor had left."Anaya
What is noteworthy is that when students did reach out to counsellors, the response they got just demotivated them further.
Stuti (name changed on request), a PhD scholar now in the US, who was a student at Allen between 2014 and 2015, has a similar story to tell. She says that back when she was at Allen, the institute used to have one mentor for the entire class – Allen Papa.
This mentor, she says, would tell students "how to score better marks, how to manage our time well, and occasionally remind us that our lives are worthless." That's it, that's where their job would end, she adds.
'Students Are Not Really Depressed': A Kota Counsellor
With the disparity in numbers – coupled with the fact that students are burdened with classes and daily assignments (Abhigyan recently started a change.org petition for a five day work week in Kota) – they don't even find the headspace to go and speak to a counsellor sometimes. But when they do reach out, they speak about:
"...difficulties with concentration, mood swings, fear of failure, intrusive thoughts, frequent distractions, conflicts with parents, excessive overthinking, relationship challenges, and mobile phone addiction."Spokesperson for Allen Career Institute in Kota
Komal Jain, a psychologist with Unacademy, says that when students are going through "something severe," they have to juggle other things to come and speak with her even for 15 minutes or so.
Dr Priti Jain, a psychologist at Motion Education, concurs. When these students do come in, she says that they're counselled so as to "change their negative thoughts into positive thoughts."
However, as opposed to what these two psychologists say, Akhilesh Jain, the chief mental health counsellor at Bansal Classes, tells FIT that "students don't trust us with personal issues because they feel those might not be safe with us since we are the institute's employees."
Despite being a mental health counsellor, Akhilesh also says that students who are "actually depressed" never seek help, and that counselling or therapy is required only in extreme cases.
"If you go around asking people then everyone has these issues. Don't you feel anxious or depressed? I do. Does that mean I need a counsellor? If this starts happening then everyone needs a counsellor. It's the media and journalists who are needlessly making a big issue out of this."Akhilesh Jain
Akhilesh also doesn't agree with the point that students could be feeling pressured due to academic stress. Instead, he pushes the blame on "teenage relationships."
That's another reason he's happy that Bansal Classes only enrolls students who "have calibre," he tells FIT.
"Why are parents pushing kids who are not capable? And why are they sending students here when they can't afford the fee of the coaching and the cost of living here? Parents keep pushing kids about marks, guilting them that you're sacrificing so much. We can't make a horse out of a donkey."Akhilesh Jain
"There is no need for a psychologist. These young kids don't need psychologists, they don't know what depression or stress is," he adds.
But Trained, Approachable Counsellors Can Be a Boon for Kota Students
Sanchita Jain, a mental health practitioner at AIIMS Delhi, tells FIT, "If someone is belittling the students' concerns or not validating them, that can create a sense in students that "oh, maybe this is something I should not be feeling" or "this seems to be my fault." And that can lead to other issues."
Experts like Sanchita feel that just coaching institutes hiring counsellors is not enough. Sanjana Jain, who has been working as a suicide prevention training facilitator with Sangath's Outlive, tells FIT:
"There are many training and skill courses available that one can take if they want to sensitise themselves about suicide prevention. Students, professors, wardens… everyone in the system can play a role in preventing suicides."
Dr Kedar Tilwe, Consultant Psychiatrist at Vashi's Fortis Mulund and Hiranandani Hospital, says that only proper mental health professionals should be guiding these students because they are already in a high-stress environment and there's a higher likelihood of them harming themselves.
The professional catering to the student must know the basics of mental health first aid and have a clear understanding of psychological distress, he says.
"This is a crisis intervention. If a plea for help goes unanswered that can cause more harm."Dr Kedar Tilwe
Sanchita agrees, saying: "Teachers should also be taken through a curriculum on being first responders, because a lot of times, students connect more with their teachers. But more importantly, create an environment where the students feel safe."