Many students from across the country move to Chennai to pursue their higher education as it is a sought-after destination. But data show that Tamil Nadu has the third-highest number of student suicides in India. This makes a focus on the mental health of students in higher educational institutions of Chennai and elsewhere paramount.
What are some of the common triggers that impact the mental health of the students? Are there systems to address the mental health issues of the students in Chennai? How efficient are they?
To address these broad questions in detail, Citizen Matters organised a panel discussion on May 19. The panel comprised Dr Subhashini Raghupathi, Dean at Madras School Of Social Work; Dr M Kanchana, Former Head of the Department of Psychology, Women’s Christian College; Srividhya S, an academician and Clinical Psychologist and Lalitha M, PhD Scholar, IIT Madras.
Factors contributing to mental health issues of students in educational institutions in Chennai
Speaking on the different factors that contribute to the mental health issues of students in the educational institutions in Chennai, Lalitha draws the parallels between her experience studying at Stella Maris College and IIT-M. She observes that the evident differences between these two campuses were the diverse demographic composition of the student community. By diversity, she means the social and economic background of the students.
While she found many support systems in assisting the students from a poor economical background in Stella Maris College including the training on communicative and soft skills for students, she says that campuses like IIT-M are rather competitive in nature.
“It is important to first acknowledge the social and economic diversity of the students in educational institutions,” says Lalitha.
Going deeper into her experiences in IIT-M, she says that the students entering a college campus should feel a sense of belonging to the space. The students need to feel included in the campus community but that is also a major factor that is missing in IIT-M.
In a span of three months, Chennai has witnessed the suicide deaths of four students in the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology – Madras alone.
“The IIT-M is mostly dominated by those from the upper castes and class elites that makes the students from the marginalised communities feel alienated and excluded from all the campus activities. Such students from marginalised communities are discriminated especially based on availing reservation by both their classmates and faculties. Educational institutions have a major role in building the student community. When we talk about the mental health issues of students in educational institutions and the factor that contribute to it, we often fail to address the role of the institutions in facilitating and defining the campus spaces,” she says, adding that the students from marginalised communities do not have proper guidance or mentorship as a result of which they sometimes cannot perform well in academics.
“Despite being one of the top institutions that provide the best extracurricular activities like sports, music and other such clubs, it is also pertinent to question why such clubs in IIT-M have not come to the aid of the students from marginalised communities and addressing their mental health issues,” says Lalitha adding that such clubs are also seen as a competitive space rather than a recreational space which has space only for those coming from similar cultural capital.
This again results in the alienation of students from marginalised communities and becomes yet another factor that affects their mental health.
While all the students have mental health issues, the ones hailing from privileged backgrounds have more access to the faculties for them to express their problems and get extensions for deadlines. On the other hand, the students from marginalised backgrounds, who are in a more vulnerable space, remain silent and are invisibilised on campus.
The PhD scholars in IIT-M are in a more critical situation as they have to maintain a good rapport with their faculty advisors.
“The mental health issues faced by scholars have been normalised to the extent that the scholars believe that they have to face it when they choose to go ahead with pursuing PhD,” she notes.
From her interactions with the PhD scholars, she also points out that all the scholars across the country go through stress, anxiety and depression during their research period. However, the academic disadvantages faced by the scholars hailing from marginalised backgrounds add to the burden and affect their academic career, she stresses.
Adding to Laitha, Garima, a student from IIT-M, said that there is a Wellness Centre on the campus to address the mental health issues of the students but the effective functioning of it is a question.
“We have found that there is a lack of sensitisation towards the ways in which mental health issues of people from different marginalised backgrounds are addressed. There is a lack of training about disability sensitisation, sexuality, gender and caste,” says Garima.
Towards creating inclusive campuses
Sharing her experiences in dealing with the mental health issues of the students in Chennai and elsewhere, Srividhya says that there is abundant access to technology now.
“Addiction to gadgets, lack of self-motivation, focus and purpose are some of the recent trends I have observed among the students. At the institutional level, the lack of inclusiveness leads to the students feeling as if they do not belong there. Without establishing the former, it is hard to make the students feel belonged to the campus. Besides, there is also a need for open communication between the faculty and the students,” she says.
“When a student enters a campus, no matter which background they hail from the teachers should consider them just as students. This open-mindedness will be the first step towards achieving inclusiveness in college campuses,” says Srividhya, adding that the faculty should also initiate conversations on mental health issues of the students inside the classrooms and normalise them.
She further stresses the need for a student support network to address the mental health issues of the students in the college campuses of Chennai and across the country as it is practically impossible to appoint hundreds of councillors for thousands of students on a college campus.
“The peer support groups can be the first respondents to address the mental health issues of the students, while the councillors came come in after them because it is easy to the peer than going directly to the councillor,” she adds.
Speaking on the measures taken in their institution to address the mental health issues of the students, Dr Subhashini of MSSW says that they have a good orientation programme that goes on for two days.
“The orientation programme helps the students and teachers connect and bond from day one. We also have a mentor-mentee system where each mentor has been allocated only five students on average. There are no time restrictions for the students to approach their mentors. This has helped us in addressing the issues faced by the students,” she says.
She adds that they also have external and internal councillors, grievance cells and suggestion boxes. They have also ensured that the college atmosphere is free for students to express their thoughts. They also have a strong and proactive student body council called the ‘student development council’.
“We ensure the academic pressure is kept low and the focus is given more on developing the interpersonal skills and social skills through soft skill programmes that are based on positive psychology,” she adds.
Chennai college teachers lack awareness of mental health issues of students
From a recent mental health literacy programme for college teachers, Dr Kanchana shares that many teachers were able to identify when the students displayed unusual behaviour or when the students lose track of academics.
“But, mental health literacy goes much beyond the illnesses and disorders. This is where I see a serious gap among the educated people in general. There is a small percentage of teachers who understand this and refer the students for counselling for the right reasons. There are others who send the students for counselling in order to discipline them. But, a large majority do not understand the root cause of the mental health and they have to be sensitised,” says Dr Kanchana.
Speaking on the wellness centres in the IIT-M campus, Lalitha points out that apart from the stigma in approaching councillors, the students have a larger question of how it is going to address the larger systemic issue as the councillor does not have any power to communicate the cause of mental health issues to the faculty or the respective department.
“Unless these wellness centres are sensitive to caste, class and gender and they understand the social diversity of the students, it will not be approachable for the marginalised students,” she adds.
Tailor-made sensitisation programmes will help in addressing the mental health issues of students in Chennai
The first step towards bringing in any kind of sensitisation program is in understanding the culture of the institution, the inclusiveness in the campus, the diversity of the campus, the specific needs of the students, openmindedness of the management towards addressing the mental health issues of the students in Chennai colleges and across the country.
“Some kind of comprehensive study or analysis should first be conducted involving all the stakeholders before initiating any sensitisation programme. The faculty must also be given access to stress management programmes to address their issues first. Only when they are stress-free, they will be able to lend their help to the students. The mental health literacy programmes should be tailor-made for different focus groups such as students, teaching staff and non-teaching staff and should be conducted periodically,” says Dr Kanchana.
Dr Subhashini further adds that a part of the faculty development programmes in Chennai colleges can include basic counselling skills. “This will also help to sensitize the teachers on some basic mental health issues faced by the students. The teachers should also spend at least 10 minutes of each class hour discussing social issues, mental health issues and other such things. This will help the students to relate to the students in one or the other way,” she says
While suicides among students in educational institutions are seen as an isolated incidents, a holistic approach towards understanding the social causes and other contributing factors is the need of the hour.
At the same time, it is also important to pin the responsibility on the institutions to create mental health safe spaces for the students in Chennai and across the country.
Follow the complete discussion here:
If you are emotionally distressed or feeling suicidal, contact the following helplines/resources
Sneha Suicide Prevention helpline – 044 -2464000 (24 hours)
State suicide prevention helpline – 104 (24 hours)
Call Psychosocial helpline – 022-25521111 ( Mon-Sat, 8 am – 10 pm)
Sneha Foundation Trust
11, Park View Road, R. A. Puram
Chennai – 600028