How Toxic Positivity Adds to the Mental Health Crisis Among Indian Students

With suicides at a five-year high, structural issues such as rising unemployment are shaping psychological problems.

4 min read
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Indian students are experiencing a severe crisis. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data from 2021 revealed that student suicides were at a five-year high. More than 13,000 students died by suicide in 2021, an increase from the previous year’s figure of roughly 12,500. These figures are an undercount, as per a Lancet report.

Student suicides are an excrescence of a deeply unhealthy mental environment. In September 2022, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) published a mental health and well-being survey of 3.8 lakh students from Class IX-XII across India.

55% of secondary school students mentioned studies as the primary cause of anxiety, and 42% expressed concern about their future. 45% of the respondents mentioned feeling tired, lonely, and tearful at least two-three times a week. During the coronavirus pandemic, self-harm and panic attacks were also common.

The psychological problems being faced by students are shaped by the disastrous dynamics of macroeconomic variables. A large-scale expansion in higher education enrollment has been accompanied by an equally large contraction of the job market.

In fact, applicants for desired jobs outnumber vacancies by numbers that reduce the entire process to a game of chance. Many a time, the qualifications of these applicants exceed the skills required by the jobs. This situation of scarcity is favourable for the growth of corruption networks that manipulate the appointment process.


Job Scarcity & Scare Continue To Plague Students

The deep-seated structural issues represented by the agony of Indian students are drowned in a discourse of positivity that considers attitudinal changes to be sufficient for improving mental health. Instead of focusing on systemic injustices, policymakers are more interested in treating students as “human capital,” as a set of personal investments that can be optimised to yield profitable returns.

In this utilitarian calculus of self-aggrandisement, the mental health problems of students are treated as “disturbances” that have to be ejected in order to ensure the viable reproduction of human capital. This takes place through the ideological propagation of “motivational” and “aspirational” attitudes in the affective atmosphere of student life. These orientations rationalise high takes of standardised exams as mere “obstacles” that have to be resolutely overcome to access the promised “future” of paychecks, commodities, luxury, etc.

Through the identification of education with a normative vision of individual security, the discourse of positivity is able to produce a “good,” “responsible,” and “mature” student who learns to sacrifice present-day gratification for a higher goal. A telling example of this narrative is provided by the Happiness Curriculum (HC) and the Entrepreneurship Mindset Curriculum (ECM) started by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi. While the former focuses on mindfulness and moral values to relax students, the latter highlights the “success stories” of business personalities to convince them that they can do anything.

Both of these pedagogic tools ignore the influence of social structures and are narrowly dedicated to strengthening the moral fiber of students so that they can uncritically suffer the inequalities of the existing education system.

The Burden of Achievement

Narratives of positivity give rise to what the philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls the “achievement subject”—a subject who is constantly crushed by the weight of perfectionist expectations.

Living in a society where everyone is considered capable of succeeding, the achievement subject suffers the burden of living up to that ego-ideal. However, the gap between real ego and ego-ideal means that the former gets ensnared in the unattainable standards set by the latter. In the words of Han: "The project turns out to be a projectile that the achievement-subject is aiming at itself. In view of the ego ideal, the real ego appears as a loser buried in self-reproach. The ego wages war with itself. The society of positivity, which thinks itself free of all foreign constraints, becomes entangled in destructive self-constraints.”


Insofar as the discourse of positivity elides structural maladies, it shifts the entire responsibility of education from social institutions to enterprising individuals. Students-as-human capital is asked to take on the risk that is inherent in every form of investment.

Consequently, the failure to achieve their desired goal becomes traceable to either their work ethic or investment choices, with the punishment being the denial of necessities. This perspective treats young people and their future as something that can be gambled with and cast off if they don’t produce value as workers or consumers. Instead of recognising the vulnerability of students, the hegemonic discourse sees them as subjects that can either function or fail; there is no in-between.

The disposability of students is part and parcel of neoliberal rationality, wherein market mechanisms function in an inevitably selective manner to produce “winners” and “losers”. Through the spontaneous operations of competition, pain, frustration, and the threat of destitution are used to separate useful and useless individuals; this is supposed to increase efficiency.

'The Dance of the Leftovers'

While the overt display of “success” functions to motivate people, the brute spectacle of failure reminds them of the consequences of wrong decisions. The social Darwinism of this market-mediated selection chimes with the right-wing articulation of a xenophobic natural hierarchy, in which the space of sociality is reduced to a "friend/enemy” binary.

In Chile, the protest song of the students’ movement—The Dance of the Leftoverstalks about how the “effort” and “dedication” required by education award “laurels and a future” to some and leave others “kicking rocks”. Asserting the futility of participating in the education system, the song says: “Join the dance of the leftovers/Nobody is going to miss us/Nobody wanted to help us really."

As the lives of Indian students are wasted in the exclusionary rat race of neoliberal education, it becomes paramount that we recognise its meaninglessness. Instead of submitting to the rhetoric of individualism and meritocracy, students in India need to recognise the structural brutality of the education system and build student power to consciously reject its existence. They have to join the "dance of the leftovers”.

(Yanis Iqbal is a student of Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia" 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.)

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