Practically every day, there is a headline. A young person has died by suicide. Most of the time, it is a student, many times the death occurring on campus. The IIT-JEE coaching centre hub of Kota in Rajasthan is actually now infamous as the “suicide capital”, with as many as 120 students having died by suicide there in the last decade.
These deaths are not the same as lives lost in accidents, or taken in murders. These are lives given up by those who lived them, who reached the end of their tether and could see absolutely no way out of their despair. To reach such a stage — when one can see no hope at all ahead, when there is nowhere to go for help — is almost unimaginable. Yet, countless people in India, of all ages, face such a situation every day. Some suicide attempts are foiled, and we do not know if this helped the subjects or made life worse for them. For an adult to be in such dire straits is bad enough; for adolescents, still under the thumb of parents or guardians, it can be several shades worse, for they are not in control of their lives, and they are expected not to have such angst-ridden thoughts. They are supposed to focus on studying and planning for the career that in far too many cases the parents have mapped out for them.
The pressures on adolescents, early or late, are little understood. Even when they are understood, there is practically no mechanism in place to deal with the troubles they face. Some enlightened private schools have counsellors, but with rules requiring the presence of a parent, often even this is of little help. Moreover, in many cases the counsellor is actually one of the teachers who has been given this “assignment”, who doesn’t quite know how to talk to the students about their problems. Some teachers believe that students only face “boyfriend-girlfriend problems”. Some give the student a questionnaire – which may or may not reveal any underlying issue. What is needed is people trained to not only talk to and listen to youngsters, but also to recognise from their body language and their way of talking that there might be a problem.
We already know that the teenage years are tumultuous ones. The child is ceasing to be childlike, but adulthood is still not within their realm yet. Tossed around in this transition phase, with the added pressure of academic performance on their shoulders, young people have traditionally never had any recourse when it comes to unburdening themselves. Friends are peers, probably going through much of the same. Family may or may not understand, and from what we know, in almost all cases family tries to hush up any sign of “trouble”, telling the child to “forget such things”.
In some cases a teenager may be able to tell a teacher about his or her troubles. Even so, there is not much a teacher can do to actually help. For this a trained counsellor is required, and most importantly the cooperation and understanding of the parents. For most people in India, the phrase “mental health” itself is negative. For example, famed classical sarod player Amaan Ali Bangash gave a newspaper interview some months ago headlined “I don’t believe in mental health”, which is extremely infuriating besides being very misleading. How would one react if he said “I don’t believe in physical health”? Such a statement would probably not even be printed by the newspaper. Maintaining a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body, and this must be stressed. Yesterday was International Teen Mental Health Day — an acknowledgement of the importance of mental wellness among the young.
The foundations of this health are laid at a young age. Do people suddenly develop neuroses, phobias or psychoses one fine day? No, these begin early in life — from conditioning by family and other relatives, and most importantly from the behaviour of parents. All these, coupled with societal influences, peer pressure, and the growing young person’s own hormonal changes, can lead to turbulence in the young mind. Given that there is a generation’s difference between parents and children, it is difficult to expect parents to understand what their children are going through. Some parents do, and with increased awareness, online information and resources available for those who want to care, more parents are able to reach out to the younger generation. At the same time, modern life is also putting added pressure on adults, who may not even have enough time, let alone thought, to devote to the youngsters.
This is why general counselling must be made mandatory for all students, definitely from age 15 and preferably from 13. This is the beginning of the Age of Turbulence. Parents should not panic and imagine that their student will become “mad”. That’s the general reaction to the mention of psychiatry, psychology, therapy or counselling. For one thing, not all students may need to see a counsellor, and secondly, teenagers’ counselling does not have to presume any existence of mental turmoil — it should be a provision, a door that the student can open if she or he needs to find out whether there is a problem, whether what they are thinking and feeling is out of the ordinary and what they can do about it. The average teacher, who already has their regular workload, is unlikely to give these issues the time and attention they require, not to mention that the average teacher is not a qualified counsellor.
It is time the government took mental health more seriously overall, and more so among the youth. Proper counselling must be made mandatory in educational institutions, so that students who are labouring under unspoken troubles have someone to talk to — someone who is trained to listen. Instead of wringing our hands after the loss of a young life, perhaps we may be able to save that life.
Vidya Heble has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and is the FPJ Edit page editor
(To receive our E-paper on WhatsApp daily, please click here. To receive it on Telegram, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)