The killers among us

The growing rate of student suicides is not about personal inabilities but reflects the failure of the educational apparatus and society at large
Last Updated : 27 May 2023, 01:47 IST
Last Updated : 27 May 2023, 01:47 IST

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It has now become an annual ritual for us to witness student suicides after the declaration of the board exam results. Competitive exams, cut-throat competition, and the anxiety around performance cause immense stress and pressure on students, often leading them to resort to suicide. Each year, as the exam season approaches, a sense of fear and anxiety accompanied by terrible performance pressure to outshine others grips students. This state of anxiety becomes the accepted ‘normal’ in their lives. What leads to the spiral of mental health falling further downward is the constant insecurity about the future and the absence of healthy, dialogic, and non-judgemental learning ecosystems in the present.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that more than 13,000 students died by suicide in 2021 and 12,500 in 2020. A Lancet report, however, suspects that the NCRB data may be projecting numbers far less than the actual number of suicides among students in India. Students seek admission to public-funded institutions that set unrealistic cutoffs prompted by fierce competition. This, in turn, leads to reduced access to opportunities for large sections that have failed to make the cut by a whisker. There are private institutions, but because of the exorbitant fees they charge, they remain an option only for the economically well-off. The problem is reflected in the very process of entering an educational institution, which includes qualifying for highly competitive exams like JEE and NEET, among several others.

Normalisation of Anxiety

The normalisation of anxiety and the exertion of pressure have made us oblivious to the steady decline in mental health and the proclivity to suicide in worst-case scenarios. The NCRB reports further suggest that in 2020, a student took his/her own life every 42 minutes; this means that every day more than 34 students committed suicide. Despite the magnitude of the problem, it is not recognised as a crisis of grave concern, perhaps because in a country like ours, the phenomenon of suicide is seen as a personal rather than a social one.

It is high time we understood suicide as a multi-layered and complex social problem and underlined the importance of mechanisms that promote mental wellbeing. Just like the issue of farmers’ suicide can be linked to the greater crisis in Indian agriculture, the rampant and aggravated rate of suicide among students must be linked to the appalling crisis in the Indian education machinery.

In a country with inadequate employment opportunities and rapid population growth, education is seen as the only resort to a better life. Underperformance, an inability to keep up with the rat race, and a perpetual sense of self-doubt often put students under unbearable stress, compelling them to kill themselves. The inability to perform and crack competitive examinations is seen as a lost chance to save oneself and one’s family from the predicaments of caste and class. Furthermore, a rapid shrinkage in both seats in public educational institutions as well as public sector jobs has intensified the degree of competition.

Moreover, family and peer pressure, accompanied by an acute sense of alienation from the entire educational process, leaves students mentally and emotionally drained. This year too, after the results of the board examinations were declared on May 12 in several parts of India, students committed suicide. News reports suggest that all of these students either failed or scored poorly. It is high time we reflect on the tremendous and often unbearable pressure we exert on students, as is reflected in the suicide note of Khusbhu Meena, a class 10 student who committed suicide this year. She wrote, “I am sorry, Mummy and Papa. I feel pressurised due to the 10th board exams. I won’t be able to score more than 95%. I am so sorry.” Her helplessness and insecurities echo in the stories of all the students who committed suicide, compelling us to question the
toxic and hostile educational environment that we have created for the younger generation.

Year after year, we are presented with alarming statistics on student suicides. Chilling suicide notes reveal the pathetic socio-emotional stress and loneliness that young people have to endure. Performance anxiety is everywhere, and so are our students, putting an end to their precious lives. Every year, without exception, incidents of exam-related suicides come pouring in, and numerous data-substantiated reports, articles, and interviews follow. Surveys are conducted, exam reforms are claimed to be necessary, and experts meet to discuss possible reforms. Yet the pressure on students keeps increasing, and we fail to put an end to this vicious cycle of cut-throat competition and student suicides.

It is paradoxical that despite the overwhelming presence of the problem, we fail to scrap competitive examinations and focus on educational processes that help cultivate well-rounded personalities that can identify their own potential in non-unilinear and creative avenues instead of competing for only very select and minuscule career options. It is also high time to bust the myth of coaching centres as stairways to successful careers and rethink the very purpose and meaning of education for life. However, none of these things are possible unless the environment of the home is made stress-free and non-judgemental, and parents take pride in the uniqueness of their child rather than engaging in a comparative attitude that pushes them to compulsively fit into pre-defined moulds. It is also high time we redefined success to make it inclusive, rather than a domain reserved for a privileged few. The growing rate of student suicides in India is no longer about personal inabilities but is reflective of the failure of both the educational apparatus and society at large. It is high time we address the crisis and save precious young lives.

(The writer is co-founder of Shiksha Swaraj Learning Centre, Patna.)

Published 26 May 2023, 17:34 IST

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