Elite campuses are fast turning into death traps. More and more starry-eyed students, pushed by ambitious parents and demanding tutors to prepare them for a ‘bright future’, are crumbling under the pressure.

Students’ suicides have become a topic of much concern for the government as well as the educators. While policy makers have so far been debating but doing little to remedy it, school and college managements have been mostly wary about confronting the issue. But it is time to act as grim statistics justify. According to a National Crime Records Bureau report, 5,877 student suicides were reported in 2006 and the number of youngsters succumbing jumped to 7,379 in 2010. While the reasons may be many, the immediate challenge before teaching institutes is to balance academics with students’ and parents’ varied aspirations.

Targetting professional education and research institutes to begin with, a task force constituted by the Central Human Resources Development Ministry to study the increasing number of student suicides recently recommended that all centrally-funded technical institutions must earmark Rs 50 lakh a year for student support services, including counselling and activities to promote emotional well being of students. Many of these institutions have taken the advice in the right spirit and some have even begun to initiate measures.

So, why should educational institutes offer student support services? The number of student suicides has been increasing each year, not to mention the increasing cases of stress, anxiety and depression. In every premiere institute, young students are thrown into a highly competitive environment away from the comfort of their homes and loved ones. Some cope, while many struggle and ultimately succumb.

Reaching out

Shamnad Basheer, Ministry of HRD professor in IP Law at National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata argues that providing support services is the responsibility of college managements for ensuring that their students blossom to their full potential. “Robust support systems have to be built up through peer networks that can provide emotional support, appoint senior students as mentors who can shepherd young entrants, and importantly faculty members who have considerable sway over these young minds can provide guidance and support from time to time,” says Basheer.

But, merely appointing a counsellor may not be enough. “One must also ensure that the counsellor builds a good rapport with students to make them feel comfortable enough to speak to him/her. Given the way counselling is perceived in this country, it may be a good idea to also have counsellors situated outside campus (though close by), so that students feel free to approach them without worrying about being judged by their peers. The counsellors chosen must be ones that have a holistic approach to mental well being and not those that are overly technical and narrow in their orientation," concludes the professor.

With students landing from various parts of the country and family backgrounds, handling their numerous problems is quite mind-boggling, opine managements. “From social network addiction to depression, we have to handle a whole lot of problems. That’s the reason, why we have employed three counsellors in the campus. We are also planning to employ two more,” says Sharad Kumar Gupta, Dean of Student Affairs at IIT Delhi. The Student Affairs Committee of IITD has also tried to branch into other services like communication courses to help students with a heavy accent. “You have to remember that high IQ- exam crackers from different states study at IIT. So, the pressure to fit in and perform is much higher than in any other institute,” adds Gupta.

Life of a student at most of the elite colleges of the country is governed by strict codes of conduct. Pramod Kumar Verma, the student council chairman of Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, admits that students often get so caught up in academic work that they don’t get time for extra-curricular activities. “A PhD student does not know when the course will finally get over. At times, it can even go on for eight years. It is extremely difficult to organise even a fest in the middle of so much academic work,” says the 29-year-old student. Interestingly, the institute has not hosted cultural fest for the last two years.

To combat the stigma associated with seeking help, IISc, Bangalore has recently launched an online counselling service for its students. According to Varma, the option to chat anonymously with a professional psychologist has received good response from the student community.

However, the management of Christ University, Bangalore which offers a wide variety of courses, has found face-to-face counselling more effective than online services. Father Abraham, Pro Vice Chancellor of the University, says that the stigma associated with seeking help is often the biggest hurdle. “We used to offer tele-counselling services for students. But we stopped it as there were not many takers for it. Currently, the institute provides four full- time counsellors as well as 300 student mentors,” says the academic.

Another way of tackling stress related issues of students, which institutes like Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai have tried is traditional Indian practices like Yoga and meditation. “We are offering yoga and meditation classes for our students so that they can handle their issues through simple breathing techniques,” says CAK Yesudian, Dean of School of Health Systems Studies at TISS. The Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore has a two-week long mentorship programme for students who need academic support, even before they join PGP, their flagship programme. The budding managers also get an opportunity to interact with IIMB alumni to understand the ethos of the institute.

School stress
Academic stress is not limited to colleges but also exists in schools. The Delhi Public School branches in Bangalore have roped in external agencies like Amelio, a childcare service provider to counsel both students and parents. Instead of focusing purely on the next exam, the school also offers students long term plans like career guidance. The school also guides students to healthier diets during stressful exam season.

Capt. Unnikrishnan, Managing Trustee, Primus Public School says that teachers at his school act as gatekeepers and address various emotional as well as academic pressures of students. In fact curriculum of the school is designed in such a manner that students can easily approach teachers, if they are reeling under pressure to perform. Unnikrishnan is of the opinion that for young, impressionable minds, support systems have to be subliminal. “We conduct special training programmes for our teachers to cater to the needs of students in a sensitive manner,” says the trustee. The school also screens movies which inculcate the right value system in students.

The ball is in the educational institutions’ court. Would they care more about their budgets or the young lives left in their care, remains to be seen.