(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.)
"The more the conversation around mental health, the more there is awareness and, in turn, better accessibility," says Prerna (name changed), a student at Lucknow's Amity University, who is an active member of her college’s mental health club. The club gives her a safe-space to vent out to her peers, who are going through similar issues as her.
Until some 10 years ago, the concept of a ‘Mental Health Club’ or a ‘Student Wellness Centre’ didn’t exist. And speaking about one’s feelings was still a big taboo.
That is now changing for students like Prerna. One step at a time. And the harbingers of this change? Students themselves.
This seems like an important development given that just three months into this year, we’ve already seen a spate of deaths by suicide on Indian college campuses. But is having a mental health club the way to tackle complex issues faced by students? FIT asked students and experts.
What Do Mental Health Clubs Do?
Urshita Sharma, a second year student at Delhi University’s Sri Venkateswara College and the Joint Secretary of the college’s mental health club – Empathise, shares that the “culture” of mental health clubs has been increasing in universities recently.
In essence, these clubs are peer support groups.
They organise sessions related to art therapy, dance therapy, music therapy, and hold activities that can facilitate conversations about mental health.
Sometimes they also invite professionals like practising psychologists, researchers, and professors to speak about topics related to mental health.
Yashika Choudhary, the President of Daulat Ram College’s Psychology Association, shares that what her college society, Safe Haven, tries to do is very similar to Empathise – de-stigmatise mental health in order for conversations to happen.
“Not all of us come from a Psychology background, we can’t counsel other students, but we can try to create awareness.”Urshita Sharma
In this pursuit, these organise fortnightly listening circles, where people talk about their experiences and reflect on them.
Even Amity Lucknow would hold "Happy Club" sessions for students, but that stopped three years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.
Baby Step, But a Commendable One
For many students, these clubs seem like a baby step, but they also say that it is a commendable one.
A survey conducted by the World Health Organization in 2018-19 stated that India was the "most depressed country" in the world that year. Every sixth individual in India was suffering from some mental health issue. But since the subject is still a taboo, not as many people seek out help.
This is a gap being filled by such mental health clubs run by students.
"A lot of people don’t have the vocabulary to express what they’re feeling. And of course, therapy is expensive, which stops people from seeking support. Peer support helps such people express their feelings in a safe, judgement-free space."Prerna, Student, Amity University, Lucknow
Prerna also adds that peer support helps students in more ways than just getting to vent about their feelings. Sharma agrees.
In the last few months, topics such as toxic masculinity, emotional abuse in relationships, abusive partners, and stress were brought up in Empathise's meetings. Not only did the students get to reflect on their own experiences, but a mentor also guided them on how to deal with such situations and emotions.
According to a 2018 study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, titled Strengthening College Students’ Mental Health Knowledge, Awareness, and Helping Behaviors: The Impact of Active Minds, a Peer Mental Health Organisation,
"Student peer organisations’ activities can improve college student mental health attitudes and perceived knowledge and significantly increase helping behaviours."
But Not Many Students Comfortable Reaching Out
However, when you zoom out and try to understand the kind of pressure students might be dealing with – having to educate others about mental health while also learning themselves – you understand that there's a long road ahead.
This is why colleges like DRC and Amity also have counselling centres run by the faculty members of the Psychology Department where students can reach out to qualified professionals for help.
But hardly a few students actually reach out to the professors. Prerna, an MA Psychology student, shares that the walk-in rate for her college’s counselling cell is very low. Few students who sometimes do turn up are from the Psychology Department itself.
Even seminars held by the cell are rarely attended by students, and those who do show up for them are often students forced to do so for “attendance.”
But why are students not turning to these faculty members for help?
Whitewashing Institutional Responsibility
The answer could perhaps be in how these counselling centres (run by the university authorities without student representation) function.
Akash (name changed), a member of IIT Bombay’s Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, alleges that students from marginalised backgrounds and from the SC/ST communities have often run into trouble with the college’s Student Wellness Centre.
“The SWC has no clue about and is not equipped to understand what social realities can do to a student’s mental health. We had asked them to take an active step in reaching out to SC/ST students and address their mental health issues due to caste discrimination on campus. But they don’t know anything about this. For IIT-Bombay specifically, the SWC is a whitewashing mechanism. If a student approaches SWC and then dies by suicide, they’ll go on record to say that the student had personal problems. Their job is to whitewash institutional responsibility.”Akash to FIT
He also claimed that the SWC is “filled with caste-rich people with no SC/ST representation."
Tara Mehta, Clinical Psychologist, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Hospitals, Mumbai, feels that while peer support groups are necessary to motivate someone who might be struggling to get help, the actual help should come only from professionals.
Prerna shares that while her professors have consciously made an effort to reach out to students to counsel them, that hasn't done any wonders so far for the number of people approaching the cell.
There are many questions that require closer introspection, something beyond what the mental health clubs can do.
The question that also arises is whether a standard framework for such clubs can be formulated? For example, a student studying at an IIT or AIIMS may have totally different issues than a student enrolled at a private university.
Would peer support sessions be enough for someone in a competitive fast paced environment?
So What Can Colleges Actually Do?
But also, why does the onus of awareness fall on the student-run clubs alone? While such student-run groups are imperative, what is it that colleges can actually do to help their students?
Dr Rituparna Ghosh, a clinical psychologist with Apollo Hospitals in Navi Mumbai, shares a few realistic measures colleges can take:
Set up a counselling centre run by trained psychologists or experts in every college premises.
These counsellors should conduct awareness programmes in the colleges to sensitise students about the need to take care of their own mental health.
Individual and group counselling sessions should be made a thing.
If a counsellor feels that someone has been seriously struggling for a significant amount of time (say 15 days or a month), they should help the student reach out to third party experts and provide them resources that might help them.
Anti-bullying cells and anti-ragging committees should also be sensitised to not just help the person being bullied but also the one bullying them.