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Curious Case Of College Suicides In India: Silence, Judgment And Denial

One dimension that has got less attention is the number of young people afflicted with debilitating depression that is exacerbated by the fact that they are away from home in college hostels

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September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. There are many dimensions to this complex topic, and over time, India has to develop a strategy that speaks to its own unique history and context. For a large number of people, there is little or no idea of the scale of the problem. In a smaller segment, word has filtered through—such that parents, spouses, children, employees etc. are aware of the grim statistics of the topic. It is important to realize that mental-health distress is often situation specific.

One dimension that has got less attention is the number of young people afflicted with debilitating depression that is exacerbated by the fact that they are away from home in college hostels. It may be argued that in western countries, when the student goes to college, they often take up more of a financial and emotional responsibility—often loans are in their name. In India, generally parents pay for even post-graduate education, and so sometimes the emotional self-sufficiency of a seventeen or twenty year old student may not be quite resilient enough to weather the distance from home. The great diversity of India can also put strain on students—one goes to some distant college for an engineering dream only to find very few speaking the language one has grown up with, or finds the classroom atmosphere remote, the teachers distant, the syllabi inflexible.

It would be surprising in this context if the student adapted easily. For many, it would be a struggle. Any serious attempt at addressing this problem will immediately find takers and gratitude. The student support centre that offers psychotherapy at Manipal University was fully booked in a few weeks, and new buildings had to be constructed. So it is not true that there is overwhelming stigma—in many cases, colleges, government, philanthropy, alumni etc. have simply been reluctant to put in appropriate money and higher quality staff for what is clearly a deep need. Few causes bring so much immediate and absolute benefit to the sponsors and it is a shame that more entities have not stepped forward.

A student may find helpful peers, or may find himself in a group with ill-thought out ideas of masculinity and silence. Male students mostly find it harder to talk of distress, and the new temptations of college life, such as alcohol etc., may be an easier coping mechanism. But this is a poor option, for when a student with such addictions goes for help, they are often simply lectured to by old-fashioned teachers, and made to feel even worse.

Unfortunately, suicides will happen in any educational environment. What is equally critical is how to care for the survivors— the family and peers. A culture of silence, or judgment, or denial is the worst one can do for the student who has passed away. Colleges must come up with means to acknowledge the person who has passed away honoring them fully. There should be no shame or blame, and the search for closure (for family, friends, college or employer) must not be dependent on the search for simple causality—she committed suicide because of a failed love affair, or bad marks, or insufficiently good marks, or because someone said such and such. Causality is the least important fact, either before or after—what is important is the future well-being of the survivors, so that there is no downstream risk of further self-harm.

What is thus crucial for suicide prevention programs is to not only address the last mile, or the prevention of the last, fatal act, as it is impossible to predict the people at imminent risk. Rather, educational institutions and the broader community has to be able to find the sensitivity and vocabulary for continual conversations around suicide, and this conversation has to be embedded into the very fabric of the college-going experience. Nothing less than lives are at stake.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Nikhil Govind

He is Head of Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University

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