When the burden proves too heavy

STUDENT SUICIDES

When the burden proves too heavy

A brilliant and determined girl student who had struggled hard and obtained admission in IIT Patna, had a very bright future ahead of her as she was studying well. But it came to an abrupt and tragic end when she committed suicide and ended not only her career but her life as well.

Student suicides have been occurring for many decades, but the number and frequency are steadily increasing. You may be surprised to note that it is not just those who fail or get poor results who attempt to take their lives — it is often very brilliant students who are performing well, are popular among their peers and teachers, and belong to supposedly happy families.

The Patna girl was only one such example that hit the media because of the fact that she was studying in an IIT.  Many other children, some as small as middle school students, do reach the stage of frustration and helplessness that prompts them to end their lives. Often the suicides are hushed up and the public does not even come to know about the tragic incident.

Childhood and youth are exciting periods in one’s lifetime, when one is full of energy, ambition, dreams, and enthusiasm.  It is the stage of life when one can bounce back from setbacks, struggle through difficulties, tolerate hardships — primarily because it is the age of hope, when one dreams of conquering the world eventually.

Then why is it that there are an increasing number of young people whose desperation is reaching a stage where they desire to end their lives? September 10 was World Suicide Prevention Day. Campaigns for awareness, prevention techniques and positive life skills, were conducted. Yet these efforts appear as drops in the ocean when we see younger and younger children attempting suicide. 

Myths
There are many myths surrounding suicide.  It is not a cowardly act — it takes immense courage and determination to actually end one’s life.  That is the reason when one completed suicide takes place, there are 5 or 10 attempted suicides, and anywhere between 50 to 100 people who are going through suicidal feelings.

The need of the hour is to work with these hundred people, and thus promote prevention, since we do not know who will be the one out of them who will end up taking his or her life.

Why does a person feel suicidal?
It is not true that only those who are poor in their studies, have no resources or money, or are not good looking, commit suicide.  You may have seen so many students who fail miserably, yet bounce back and have a positive outlook.  Even in the worst of circumstances, if a youngster is going through financial struggle, failure in exam, anxiety regarding studies or career, suppression by parents or others, as long as he can look into the distant future and build up hope that some day these hurdles will be overcome and there will be a better life, he continues to struggle.

For example in Karnataka, the suicide rate is not highest in the most backward or poor districts, but rather in districts like Mandya that are comparatively prosperous and progressive.  Similarly, Bangalore city, which is a haven of opportunity and progress, has a much higher rate of suicide among youth than the smaller cities where growth is limited.

If a person undergoing stress gets the feeling that things will not improve, or maybe even get worse, then he starts losing hope. If he thinks that there is no hope that he can make things better, he takes the next step of reaching out for help.  If no one comes forward to support him (or he thinks that no one will help him), he becomes helpless. 

Then he questions his very existence on this earth, and whether he is serving any purpose by living.  If the answer tends to be in the negative, then the person feels he is worthless.  In simple terms, a suicidal person is one who feels: Hopeless, helpless and worthless.

Joint efforts
If society can come together to prevent the above three factors developing in the youth, we can not only bring down the incidence of suicide, but also help them lead a better quality of life.  The efforts need to be made as team work among schools/colleges, parents, and also peers.  At a practical level, the following steps will be useful:
nDiscuss stress (particularly exam-related, and other periodic issues as and when they come up) openly, acknowledge that stress is natural and needs to be managed.

Emphasise that denial of stress prevents working towards its reduction.  Have group discussions on different ways stress can be handled.  The more open communication is, the lesser is the chance of one person getting lonely or suicidal.

*Take particular care when a student is starting a new academic year, facing exams, awaiting results, seeking admission, etc., as these are the periods when there could be possible crises. Make the student talk about how he or she is feeling, anxieties, doubts, comparisons with others, and future plans.

*Keep reinforcing to the student about various alternatives to build a good future, have a successful career, build better relationships, etc. Have brainstorming sessions exploring career options and new opportunities coming up.  Also, discuss periodically with the student on an individual basis about his specific plans, dreams and even frustrations.

High risk
The following fall under the high-risk category and are suicide-prone:
*Those who have attempted suicide earlier

*Those who have seen or known about suicide of a family member or friend, even if that incident happened long ago

*Those who are very rigid in their thinking, and have strong likes and dislikes.

*Those who set high standards and have only one goal (e.g. “I don’t just want to do engineering, I want to do it only in IIT”)

*Those who are unhappy after achieving their goals, because they feel it is a let-down.
(The girl in IIT Patna may possibly be in this category — she may feel IIT studies are too tough, may not have fitted in with her classmates, she may be disappointed that it is not as great as she had thought.)

*People who have low self-esteem and feel that they are not good enough compared to others.

Prevention
Look for the warning signs (see next section).  If more than two or three are present (and particularly the last one), then do not take matters easy. Start off with:
*Spending more time with the person, allowing him to talk whatever he wants to, encouraging him to bring out his feelings.

*Discuss confidentially with other people close to him whether they too have noticed his unusual behaviour.  Try and see if you can carefully team up with parents, teachers and friends so that it is easier to keep an eye on him and to keep giving him support. But do not talk to him directly about his suicidal feeling, and definitely do not express that suicide is a cowardly act.

*Slowly make him talk about his level of frustration and whether he is losing hope.  If he seems to be becoming hopeless, then work on whether he can find help somewhere, if someone can give him solutions or support.  If he indicates that he is feeling helpless, then at least help him build his self-worth, so that he believes that he has a mission to fulfill in his life, and academic or relationship setbacks do not mean that he is not worth something.

*Make him feel that he is needed in this world by someone, anyone.  If he thinks that he is needed (not just loved), then he will not resort to suicide.

*Build trust by not betraying his confidentiality. Assure him that you are there for him regardless of what decision he takes, but that you like/love him so much that you do not want to lose him under any circumstance.

Warning signs
Look for warning signals in any student, either at home or in school/college.  If parents and teachers network and keep communicating often, they can inform each other of signs that may indicate frustration in any student.  Warning signs to be looked out for are:
*Loss of interest in favourite activities
*Neglecting physical health, hygiene, dress
*Showing undue interest in death, or talking about poisons, suicide, morbid topics.
*Withdrawing from peer group, or becoming unusually bubbly or overactive (putting on a mask).
*Making vague statements regarding the futility of life or not wanting to plan for the future.
*Settling minute accounts with friends, returning borrowed items, closing any commitments or partnerships.
*Getting overly tense when facing exams or when the results are due.
n Putting himself down continuously and not making attempts to improve the situation he is in.
*Actually talking about ending his life, wanting to commit suicide, etc. (Many people unfortunately think that those who talk about suicide do not actually attempt it — that is a wrong presumption.  A person may mention suicide subtly or openly a number of times, and one fine day actually go through it.)
(The author is a counselor who works extensively with students and youth in providing guidance, support and direction)

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