Will we ever understand the difference between encouragement and excruciating pressure?

Exam pressures and depression How good intentions kill childhoodFile image
Voices Blog Sunday, March 20, 2016 - 14:30

On March 20, Suhasini, a class 12 student in Salem in Tamil Nadu, killed herself because her math paper was so tough that she did not stand the chance of acing her exams. She had scored more than 92% in Math in her class 10 exams. She was not afraid of failing, she was afraid her performance won't be stellar.

The tragic incident is yet another reminder of the pervasive culture of marks-paranoia which rules our education system, and a lot of us have been victims of it.

I was born and brought up in an upper middle-class family in Chennai. My parents denied me nothing, except the weekly chole bhature which I was addicted to when we were living in Delhi for a few years. I had good clothes, we went for holidays frequently and I got the best of food thanks to a food- loving dad. We were not super-rich, but always provided for quite well.

They just wanted one thing in return when I was a kid, that I score good marks. Initially it was the same "mera beta engineer banega". My body revolted to the pressures being put on me by friends, family, school teachers and tuition masters.

Looking back, it is difficult not to realise and accept what a pointless exercise it was for me, and several others. From grade 8 to 12, every day was a terror- filled struggle. I would wake up in the morning fearing what was ahead. And if there was an Organic Chemistry class that morning, then the world turned to hues of black and white. Mathematics was less scary, I used to score well. But that 95-100% score was always elusive, perhaps because I never really wanted such high scores. That’s what everybody hated about me, and I hated about myself.

After school, and the two hours of extra classes'' in the school, I would return home to an hour-long halt before rushing for evening tuitions. I used to sit on my father’s easy-chair to relax, and look at hands of the clock approaching the dreaded hour with fear. Even now, the image of the clock closing in on 5’o clock sends a chill down my spine. At 5pm, it would be time for tuition classes. Three hours of teachers drilling us with theories, concepts and tricks to get better marks. Then back home to dinner and finishing school homework for the next day.

On a few days I had early morning classes too. School was a 6-day-a-week affair. On Sundays, there were special classes, or all-day coaching classes. Grade 12 examination is just the beginning. After that, preparation for IIT JEE, AIEEE, whatever, the list goes on, I don’t even remember. What I do remember is losing interest in music, sport and dance. I stopped reading books. I stopped watching movies. I remember being sad.

Clinical depression and stress related disorders among children in India are perhaps the most understated phenomena. But even available research and anecdotes on depression in adolescents and teenagers point to how serious it is. A Department of Pediatrics study from Institute of Maternal and Child Health of Calicut Medical College found 73% of kids to be stressed. The study lists examination failure, learning problems, overall stress in family and overall stress at school as important parameters of stress.

“High parental expectations and parental behaviours contribute to school-related stress. In a class of 40 or more students, the teacher cannot give individual attention to children with learning disorders and children who are slow learners. The finding that learning problems and examination failures contribute to depressive disorder in children emphasizes the need to address the problems of this group of children while planning academic curriculum,” says the study.

A study by the Journal of Indian Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health found that 23.7% children tested presented with moderate to severe depression. More than 37% had mild depression. That’s 60% children depressed. Girls were found to be marginally more depressed than boys. Ironically, we get to see media headlines every year around this time that girls outperform boys when it comes to marks. The study lists pessimism, sense of failure, dissatisfaction, guilt, expectation of punishment, self-dislike and self-accusations as symptoms in its list of 21. All the aforementioned are related to examinations and performance in schooling.

Clinical psychologists claim that statistics show 2-3% of Indian children could be clinically depressed.

“The examination system and parents are the ones who are putting the pressure on the child, and that makes them stressful early in life. I have seen stress related disorders like stammering, nightmares and asthma in most children who come to me. And in almost all the cases, their school-coping levels are stretched,” says Dr C Kumar Babu, former Head of Department of Psychiatry at Stanley Medical College in Chennai. “There is only so much a child can learn. If we stimulate the child more than his or her capacity,” he says, “it has a reverse impact. The whole purpose of education is to make the child curious. We make them fearful and dampen their curiosity.”  

Mostly, teachers and parents have good intentions. But in the end it is not intentions which matter, but outcomes. As a result we have a work-force labouring blindly for body-shop multinational companies, but have no potential to innovate.

Since the introduction of misguided policies by the previous UPA government, it has become fashionable to say that our system does not care for performance anymore. Compulsory pass till grade 8 is no doubt the wrong solution to reducing parental pressure, because it is affects learning levels. But that is not to be confused with the culture of pressurising our children, as the culture far overwhelms any policy change in our education system.

I perhaps turned out OK as I made up for school in college. My undergrad was a three-year-long party. There were enough friends, and by then my parents understood who I was. Not everybody is that lucky, many of my closest friends from school aren’t.

In his inspiring TedX talk, Andrew Solomon says that the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality. Examination pressure takes away from affected children their vitality, the importance of their existence. Unless teachers, parents and peers get rid of denial and understand this problem which is hidden in plain sight, no policy change can improve our education system. 

This article has been republished with edits following the recent incident in Salem.

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