All is not well. In the past two weeks, five students in Tamil Nadu have died by suicide in what experts fear is the chilling ‘copycat’ effect. Even though Tamil Nadu reportedly has one of the highest suicide rates in the country to just flag the state would be missing the woods from the trees.
There is further proof that the warnings through Covid are coming home to roost, the other pandemic- that of mental health is now underway. The most recent figures by the National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) may be under reported, but they don’t lie.
In 2020 as Covid tightened its hold, a student died by suicide every 42 minutes in the country. To put that alarming reality in further perspective, we tragically lost 34 students daily, each death one too many. While the farmers suicide in the country that gets coverage stayed at 7.4%, it was overtaken by the death of 12,526 students who are now mere statistics- 8.2% of deaths. Yet its reporting remains transient at best.
What will surprise many is that the deaths have taken place despite examinations being cancelled during Covid, suicide incidents in the country peak with exam stress. But in a new post pandemic order that thinking itself is flawed as socioeconomic factors have also found a corner in the mental health debate concerning the young.
For more than two years counsellors have been red flagging the pandemic’s impact on our students- the intimate exposure to loss, the impact of isolation, the changed reality of depleting family finances, unending uncertainty are just some of the factors that are not unpredictable. Yet, we were caught napping with our mental health infrastructure. Tamil Nadu government has announced only after the horse has bolted that it will appoint 800 doctors to give psychological counselling to school students. Most states aren’t even at the drawing board.
Does that absolve our education system, absolutely not. Instead of assuaging the fears of the students, it has come with all guns blazing expecting them to perform as though life was never interrupted. Schools are obsessively trying to cover any which way the syllabus from the lost years. Over the summer children have been inundated with homework, a good percentage of which teachers handicapped by the sudden rush to online teaching were not able to themselves teach.
The weight of expectations on tender shoulders is not recent, extraneous circumstances have seldom been allowed to disrupt the Indian child from his or her text book education. But pushing the same mantra down- whether it is families or schools without little or no thought to their emotional vulnerability now could have repercussions we can ill afford. Perhaps, it already is. A suicide note of one of those girls who died reportedly says that she had taken the extreme step after performing poorly in a monthly exam.
An unfamiliar terrain
The transition from online to physical attendance has not been easy on all, for one it has taken away the anonymity which doubled as a coping mechanism. From the familiarity of the past two years students are back in what is now unfamiliar terrain. Not just that, education itself was not equitable during Covid, only 8.5% of children had access to the internet and the remaining large percentage will feel the pressure of catching up with their peers. It cannot be business as usual.
While it needs all stakeholders — institutions, teachers, parents, governments to come together to grapple with the enormity of what is unfolding, the policymakers until now have been failing the children. A committee to draft a national suicide prevention policy was created in 2018 but four years later, there is still no firm strategy in place.
While conversations around mental health have picked up, students in India though continue to be the last mile. Their concerns are still not considered serious enough or anything more than a ‘phase.’
The media too has a part, it needs to report with some sensitivity while also creating awareness and not abandoning the tragedy once the 48- hour news cycle is over. Reporting to its conclusion will bring answers, instead counsellors say the media’s sensationalism also causes physical harm, those who are on edge feed on the tried and tested.
Young population demographic
When it comes to suicide, India already begins from the back foot. It is the leading cause of death in the age group 15-39 years offsetting the advantage of having a predominantly young population demographic. As we begin to assess the post Covid scenario where girls are the first casualty when it comes to education just as women are of the workforce, the background noise urgently needs to become mainstream.
Suicide rate among Indian girls and women remains twice the global average. The dots need to be connected instead, we are more interested in the branded bag of a politician.
Growing up was never this complicated, both the haves and the have nots come with their own challenges. Suicide by death can be prevented, but it needs ambition and there is still time, to put not just a mechanism in place but to also give students the attention they deserve. For there are also those who attempt suicide but do not succeed, they are not children of a lesser god.