Families Should Show Empathy When Needed: Mental Health Expert

Families Should Show Empathy When Needed: Mental Health Expert

In the final part of our three-part series on rising cases of suicides among IIT students, we spoke to Dr Aruna Jha, a mental health specialist, on how to tackle depression and suicides.

Sunidhi VijayUpdated: Saturday, March 02, 2024, 03:43 PM IST
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Dr Aruna Jha | Special Arrangement

Often crises, lack of support from families and peer groups, or hesitation in seeking counselling spike depression and push students, especially of the IITs, towards suicide. In light of the rising suicide cases among IIT students, The Free Press Journal (FPJ) reached Dr Aruna Jha, a certified mental health specialist, who is also an assistant professor at the Department of Social Work, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and the co-founder of the JOYHELPS, which is a dedicated mental health app for college students, to understand her views on this menace.

“The work that I am planning to do along with Dheeraj Singh, a suicide prevention expert in India, is bystander training which means that training every person in the institution, all students, all staff, all faculty, every family member on how to recognise the sign of suicidal tendencies,” Dr Jha told the FPJ when asked about her plan on the growing number of suicides.

Dr Jha emphasised several aspects of a student’s journey in the IITs, which fuel depression and put them in problems.  

“What percentage of students coming out of IITs want to become practising engineers? An IIT gives you skills which allow students to move to more successful arenas. However, when a young student comes and they are not familiar with this thought process of learning skills, then that becomes a problem,” she said.

As a mental health expert, she shared her thoughts with the FPJ on how to help the students facing depression and the role of the family and peer group in it.

FPJ: How should students cope if they have a peer who died by suicide? 

Dr Jha: A student should be seeking counselling. The colleges should initiate some type of support counselling session where everyone can sit down and talk about what it means. Group counselling will also help in de-stigmatising it.

FPJ: How can students help their friends if they know they are having suicidal thoughts? 

Dr Jha: It is unrealistic to expect that a student who already has suicidal thoughts can have the energy to seek help. The responsibility then lies with the people surrounding them. One of the primary characteristics of adolescence is secrecy.  It is important to bust this culture. Young people should realise that if they have a friend who needs help, they should not keep it a secret and seek help for them. 

Be prepared that they will never agree to go to a mental health professional because there's still shame attached to it. It's a myth that only professionals can help you. In reality, it takes only one person to say that they understand the pain and that they are there with them. Give the person time, be there and let them talk about it. 

FPJ: Do you have students coming to you to talk about their problems? What is your approach towards them? 

Dr Jha: I teach mental health professionals and the first thing that I do is make my classroom a safe devotional classroom. I make it very okay for students to say they have anxiety issues and I normalise it being a part of life. One part of college is to learn how to bring yourself out of it.

FPJ: Do you think that aggressive parenting also has a part to play in the declining mental health of a student?

Dr Jha: What is the one responsibility of a person who is on the verge of adulthood? The answer is they need to learn how to grow up. Many students struggle because they think they are making choices that their parents would not approve of. If you have the freedom to decide how you react to what your parents are saying.  Your life is your own. Respect for parents has two aspects—feeling respect and showing respect. If your parents are not good for you, just show respect to them. Why would you tolerate abuse? Grow up and walk away. 

The parents need to know that the words never leave the mind. The human brain has not fully developed before the age of 28-29, thus children are not able to think rationally. But parents are adults and even if the kid is acting out, they should know to hold their tongue because if they say a wrong thing, it may escalate the situation. 

FPJ: What advice do you have for students to keep their mental peace amid all the chaos?

Dr Jha: Any type of transition is a moment of crisis. When a student graduates from high school, and then goes to prepare for JEE maybe after taking a year off is a transition. They have invested so much of their energy and emotions that it aggravates this transition. There is so much focus on preparing the students for the academic transition that there is very little emphasis placed on the emotional needs to manage this transition. 

Every institution has a culture, be it the US or India, and there is very little conversation prior to entering the culture and understanding what it is all about. When a student comes straight from high school, they only know about that culture. 

There is no time for students to start preparing for life, thus a student is taken by surprise. In psychology, this is called acculturation shock. Nobody is helping these students in navigating this new culture they're put into. Students don't even have a group of friends in most cases to fall back to. 

Students should do some reading about what it takes to succeed in life, develop leadership skills and talk confidently. There's a very natural shyness but to master it should be taught. 

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