(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.)
Two more teenagers, a 16-year-old boy from Maharashtra, and an 18-year-old boy from Bihar, studying in Kota died by suicide on Sunday, 27 August taking the tally of students dying by suicide in the city to 23 this year alone.
A couple of weeks ago, a novel 'anti-suicide' measure was enforced in Rajasthan's 'coaching hub' Kota — the installation of a spring attached to fans, which would get activated if someone tries to take their life.
The situation in the coaching hub is indeed grave. The rampant suicide among students is not limited to Kota alone.
At least 16 students in Tamil Nadu have taken their lives over the NEET exam row. In Jadavpur University in Kolkata, a 17-year-old purportedly died by suicide earlier in August, after he was allegedly ragged and sexually assaulted.
The National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) data from 2021 shows that over 13,000 students died by suicide during that one year alone.
But is the problem really the sturdiness of fans?
Amidst all the issues that plague young Indians, addressing only access to methods of suicide is a half-measure at best.
What's Plaguing Indian Students?
Kota is known for being a factory for parents’ dreams — it offers coaching to aspirants of medicine and engineering courses. The immense pressure on students to achieve these goals, irrespective of their wishes or capabilities has wreaked havoc on many a young person. Again, surely, fans are not the problem.
It is true that reducing access to common suicide methods is recommended – in the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), as well as studies.
But without addressing the core causes, interventions on the modes of suicide are not only insensitive but also likelier to fail.
Mental health is nowadays viewed from a biopsychosocial lens, where the tendency for suicide is affected by the biological, psychological and social factors. Often, we stop at the biological and psychological factors.
In the case of many institutions even these remain unaddressed.
It is incorrect to think that only the pressure of succeeding gets to students.
While Memorising Numerical, Mental Health Goes For a Toss
Suicidality is often multifactorial. In these institutes, students come to fulfill dreams – sometimes their own, sometimes these dreams belong to their families.
From family problems and unemployability to mental illnesses to discrimination and abuse – many factors together contribute to suicidal tendencies.
One should note that not all the students come from social and financial privilege. This adds the pressure of providing for their families as soon as possible.
The stakes of failure seem higher – but the institutes don't care enough to address them.
In the midst of memorising shortcuts for numerical questions and high scoring facts, the mental health of students goes for a toss.
In fact, the NCRB data only counts the attempts that result in death. There are many who are survivors of such attempts.
How We Approach Suicides Needs to Change
In a country where mental health like anxiety is still a taboo for a large section of society, it is difficult to even discuss the issue of suicide.
Often its not even on the individual — there are precipitating situations around a person that lead to this step. In the context of a student these can range from bullying, sexual or physical abuse, poor performance in studies to marginalisation based on gender, religion, or/and caste.
While an individual's coping strategy may help survive the onslaught of all these, nearly all of these problems need a shift in the approach of the institution itself.
Preventing violence on campuses, addressing discrimination, providing support for academics per the need of the student, are some of the areas that institutions must definitely focus on.
Additionally, the availability of healthcare services including mental health support must be ensured at the institutions for all students.
Currently, the focus seems only on reducing death due to suicide. And this, minimises the distress students face.
How Can Institutions (Really) Prevent Suicides
We need to consider ways of preventing this situation at a primary level.
If we consider the student, we must look at the spaces they exist in and move from there instead of, rather reductively, taking away their fans (in an increasingly warmer world).
We must think about why students try to end their life. Surely, the answers are not all evasive.
Even families need to consider the roles they play in the lives of students, not all persons are destined to be doctors and engineers – even the ones with those degrees often change path.
Is it fair to expect a young adolescent or even a young adult to not only survive but succeed a cutthroat competition that they often haven’t chosen?
India continues to have a huge youth population and suicide is the leading cause of death in the 15-29 years age group. In 2022, a national prevention strategy was introduced by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to combat this rise in number of suicides.
While this strategy itself has received some critique, for educational institutions to even learn from and work according to the existing national strategy will be a start. Inconveniencing students, while ignoring their problems, is simply counterintuitive.
Some basic possible approaches can be:
Improving access to mental healthcare: This includes making quality mental health services available.
Addressing social determinants of health: This include providing job opportunities, financial support, preventing and addressing discrimination and violence, and promoting social inclusion.
Raising awareness about suicide prevention: This includes educating people about the risk factors for suicide and how to get help.
Supporting people who are struggling: This includes building mechanisms for emotional support, practical help, and resources.
All educational institutions need to reconsider their mechanisms for tackling suicide.
If an institution makes people prone to death by suicide, it is telling on the way the institution runs.
(Dr Shivangi Shankar is a medical doctor and public health researcher. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)