Kota: Is anything bothering you? Do you really want to become an engineer or a doctor? Are you able to follow what is taught in class? Is food served in the mess good? These are some of the questions posed to coaching students here by a team of police personnel who have turned counsellors. Rocked by a spate of student suicides, the city police has set up a dedicated "Student Cell" to reach out to students and make attempts to detect early signs of stress and depression.
"The cell has a control room where personnel are deputed to receive calls on the dedicated helpline. They attend to the problems reported on calls and direct them to counsellors if a student needs professional help. There are teams that conduct random checks in hostels, interact with students, counsel them and report to their parents if they spot some signs of pressure, stress or depression," Kota Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Chandrasheel Thakur told PTI.
Thakur heads a team of 11 police personnel. They were chosen as all are in their 40s and have teenage children, which will help them in understanding the challenges faced by the students, he said. The team starts its day at 9 am and visits at least 15 hostels daily. From familiarizing the students with the dedicated cell, sharing the helpline number with them, counselling them into reaching out for help and also having a plan B ready, the team spends time among students but not in uniform.
"We have reached out to 60,000 students so far. Sometimes the students are reluctant to share with us that they are under some kind of pressure from parents. We also reach out to wardens to be able to tell us if they spot any change in the behaviour of students, if he or she is missing classes or skipping meals. If we identify such students, we are able to get them help much before they reach a stage where they take any extreme step," Thakur said.
Over 2.5 lakh students move to Kota annually to prepare for competitive exams such as the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) for engineering and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical colleges. The year 2023 has seen the highest number of student suicides -- 22 so far -- with two ending their lives in a gap of a few hours on August 27. Last year, the figure was 15. Packed schedules, cut-throat competition, constant pressure to do better, the burden of parents' expectations and homesickness are among the common struggles of the students here.
"I leave from the control room at 9 am and visit at least 20 hostels -- both girls and boys. I speak to as many students as I can. At times, if I find any student in the hostel when he or she should have been in class, I ask them the reason why they are not attending classes. I speak to their parents too at times. A common message that I have for all students is -- have a plan B and the moment you feel pressured reach out for help," said Sanju Sharma, Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI), Kota.
"If we find some student is depressed, first we try to counsel them ourselves. If we feel that the student is very much under stress, we get them counselled by professional psychologists," she added. While all coaching institutes are mandated to have counsellors, the police officials say that students often do not open up with them due to the fear of their parents or peers finding out.
"We speak to wardens, check their books, conduct inspection whether required infrastructure is in place in hostels and interact with mess workers to be alert if some student is repetitively skipping meals. We also check if all hostels have anti-hanging devices installed in fans and direct them for compliance if something is found lacking," said Bhartendra, a police constable who is part of the student cell.
"Often students get disturbed because of discomfort caused due to infrastructure or food which leads to homesickness. So, we try to resolve all these issues too," he added. The district administration has recently asked coaching institutes to stop conducting routine tests for students preparing for NEET and other competitive exams for the next two months in the wake of the latest suicides.