In September 2019, a student of Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) in Kerala killed herself allegedly over not being able to score well in a subject. This death, according to students and alumni, is one of the many suicides by AIMS students that year stemming from difficulties in dealing with academic pressure, among other reasons.
An alumna of the college started an online petition to garner enough signatures to impel the AIMS Dean to improve student support on campus and save lives. â€śThe student welfare committee clearly is not functioning properly and exists in a disciplinary rather than a supportive function. As proven by these unnecessary deaths, much more needs to be done,â€ť read the statement.
A few months later, after Fathima Latheef, a first-year student at IIT Madras was found dead at the college hostel in November 2019, the students of the premier government institute protested to reiterate demands put forward by the student legislative committee in early 2019.
Apart from an internal probe in Fathimaâ€™s death, the students demanded that the college also conduct a holistic survey, along with professionals from outside â€” psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, sociologists and educationalists â€” to understand the mental health issues faced by the students.
â€śAbout six students took their own lives last year,â€ť claimed a member of Chinta Bar, an independent student body of IIT-Madras. â€śWe do not have a committee that probes these suicides to find out what led the students to take the extreme step. There is no scientific approach to address or even understand what are the actual problems students face. Currently, some professors give their opinion based on their understanding of the matter,â€ť the student told TNM on the condition of anonymity.
Incidentally, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 10,159 students died by suicide in 2018, which is an increase of 254 from 2017.
The need of the hour â€” as expressed by students and mental health experts, and as mandated by the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 â€” is a mental health support system at educational institutions.
Counselling, a solution-based approach
Experts say that many times, students just require a space to have a conversation rather than a diagnosis or medication, which can be given by a psychiatrist. Thatâ€™s why counsellors or counselling psychologists have a major role to play in making mental healthcare systems in academic institutions robust to deal with studentsâ€™ issues.
â€śCounsellors play the role of therapists. Clinical psychologists know if the patient has to be referred to a counsellor or a psychiatrist. Clinical psychologists infer if it is a medical problem and refer to a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist has the right to give medication that helps the patient cope with their mental health issues, if required. But what educational institutions really need, are counsellors,â€ť explained Harish Bhuvan, a counsellor based in Bengaluru.
â€śAcademics, peers, relationships and family-related problems are some of the issues that young adults face and come to us for,â€ť said Shalini Rao, Consultant Counsellor, Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, which has a mental health centre on campus called Mind Space.
â€śMental health is undervalued in Indian academics. The presence of a mental health support centre on campus helps students navigate their stress. Besides, students donâ€™t come to get help only when there is a crisis. They also come because there is a culture of positive attitude towards mental health on the campus,â€ť she added.
When thereâ€™s trust deficit
According to some students and experts TNM spoke to, lack of trust also discourages many students from approaching in-house counsellors.
Tina (name changed), a college student in Bengaluru, had once sought help from a counsellor at her school. However, a few details of the conversation were shared with the principal, teachers and then her parents. â€śWe need the space to talk. But I do not go to the counsellors at my college due to that lack of trust,â€ť she said.
Harish agreed that the practice of reporting back to the college administration makes students reluctant to approach the in-house counsellors.
â€śThe institution, in an attempt to ensure quality, decides to allocate a person to supervise the counsellor when he/she is not qualified to do so. In fact, they may, directly or indirectly, be part of the problem the student is facing,â€ť he said. â€śWhen the anonymity or confidentiality is compromised, students may prefer seeking help from counsellors outside.â€ť
Letting an external chief counsellor supervise the campus counsellor instead will help keep personal biases at bay and lets the counsellor look at the case differently, he added.
Counsellors need rigorous training
The culture and systematic understanding of mental health is relatively new to the Indian education system. Besides giving solutions, understanding the problem itself is the first step in strengthening the mental support system on campuses, said Harish. He added that counsellors need to invest more time in one-on-one therapy sessions with students to learn more about their issues as well.
Further, to address the dearth of resources, it is important to have regulatory bodies or licensing practices to ensure there are well-trained counsellors, which is currently lacking in India, noted Shalini.
All the while practising, it is equally crucial that counsellors proactively seek additional education or courses. Shalini, for instance, recently took a queer affirmative counselling practising course. â€śIt provides a solid framework to support queer individuals. It is affirmative to not just saying we are friendly but helps counsellors be a political ally to the community,â€ť she said.