Second Suicide in a Month: Are Students Stressed and Alienated at IIT-Madras?
After two suicides were reported at IIT-Madras, an inquiry committee has been formed to look into such incidents.
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(Trigger Warning: Mentions 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.)
Friends of Vaipu Pushpak Sreesai, a 20-year-old student of Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-M) claim he took the extreme step as he was unable to cope with academic pressure. Lack of an effective support system in the institute only made things worse, they claim.
"He was such a smart guy and very friendly, but he hadn't been socialising well after he got backlogs in the recent semesters," an acquaintance of the deceased student told The Quint on the condition of anonymity.
A native of Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh, Sreesai was a third year B Tech student of IIT Madras. He was found dead in his hostel room on Tuesday, 14 March. This is the second such suicide reported within a month from IIT-M campus.
On 14 February, Steven Sunny, a second-year M Sc student from Maharashtra, was found dead in his room. Months earlier, in September 2022, Subhranashu Shekar Dehuri, another 21-year-old student, allegedly died by suicide in Tapti hostel of IIT-M.
The cases indicate a serious problem plaguing the institute, students of IIT-M say.
What Happened on 14 March at IIT-M?
Police officials from Kotturpuram police station where a case of unnatural death has been registered, told Hindustan Times that Sreesai had arrears which he couldn’t clear.
"He (Sai) had not attended classes for a week. He has three roommates who tried speaking to him but he wasn’t responding properly to him. On Tuesday, around 9 am they met him downstairs outside of the hostel. They thought that he would come to class but he hadn’t. We don’t know at what time he died by suicide but when his roommates went back they found the room locked and they informed authorities," they added.
The IIT-Madras expressed its condolences for Sai's demise and in its statement on Tuesday, 14 March, said that an internal inquiry committee, including elected student representatives, has been constituted to look into such incidents.
"Post COVID has been a challenging environment and the institute has been endeavouring to improve and sustain the well-being of the students/scholars, faculty, and staff on campus while constantly evaluating the various support systems in place."IIT Madras Statement
IIT-Madras Director V Kamakoti addressed the media on Wednesday and said that the college can help only if students ask for help. "In a campus of 12,000 students, we will know if they are stressed or depressed only when they come out and socialise," he added.
The Students General Secretary, a student representative at the IIT Madras, said that the management and the student council cannot reach every single student though they are available to them. "We are trying our best to pay attention to each student, but we want students who are battling depression to seek help."
Are There Support Systems To Help Depressed Students?
Some students claim there aren’t enough support systems for them.
Many students who joined the college during COVID times attended online classes for the first two years and reached the campus on in their third year – a high-pressure academic year that is very important for internship placements. Lacking good interpersonal relationships with friends and effective mentorship from senior students, many students have felt clueless on campus as they struggled with their courses.
Neetesh Meena, a student representative at IIT Madras, said, "A faculty advisor is assigned for every 20 students. If they carefully pay attention to students' grades and discuss their performances and ways to improve them, it could help them clear backlogs and thus ease out academic pressure among students and save a lot of lives. While there are avenues to ask for help, they are not functioning effectively, and students feel helpless at adverse times."
In Sreesai’s case, not all of his backlogs are due to poor grades. Some were due to an attendance shortage, his friends claim.
Meena explained that most of the other reputed institutes, including IITs in other states, have a mandatory 75 percent attendance rule. However, at IIT-M, 85 percent attendance is mandatory. "It is very difficult for students to maintain 85 percent mandatory attendance in the post-COVID era, especially because students are busy with extra-curricular activities, internships, and exams," Meena added.
Many students are struggling to adapt to offline classes after COVID. Attending early morning classes amidst a hectic academic schedule is a herculean task as students mostly work late nights for assignments and other club-related activities. When the students fail to maintain the required attendance, they are not allowed to appear for exams. This increases the pressure and pushes them into depression, Meena alleged.
"Three deaths by suicide and five suicide attempts were reported on campus in the past six months. We all have to stop this," Meena urged.
Back in February, when Sunny died by suicide, students staged protests to improve mental health support systems in the institute. Staff members should be considerate and rework the attendance policy, students of IIT-Madras said.
On 15 March, late in the evening, an emergency student legislative council meeting was organised in the presence of students and faculty members to address the grievances of students.
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