Earlier this year, Radha Sharma got an unexpected visit from an ex-student and his family. The student had taken her course on emotional intelligence at Management Development Institute (MDI), Gurgaon. While still a student, he had sought her advice when he was upset over his father's death. A student came with his daughter and his wife to meet me a few months back. He said 'Do you remember, I was very upset? I was keen that my family meets you and knows how I got over my sadness', recalls Sharma. In this case, the student found correct guidance close at hand, but cases where personal distress leads to suicides in highly competitive places like engineering colleges and b-schools are not unheard of.
The issues faced by the students can range from the personal to the professional, including peer pressure and living up to parental expectations of placement after the course. It's not a surprise then, that today's news reported that under the directive of the HRD ministry, a panel has been set-up at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to study stress levels among students at its campuses. The panel will also try to understand the support systems at place to prevent student suicide. This follows closely on the heels of the suicides of Pankaj Chowdhury of IIT, Kharagpur in July and Malini Murmu of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore last week. Both were found hanging from a ceiling fan in their respective hostel rooms. Do the b-schools in India also have a way to deal with student depression?
In December 2010, a student of the Indian School of Business (ISB), Lakshminarayan Iyer (31), was found dead in his hostel room a few days after he consuming poison-laced alcohol. He left a 'do not disturb' board on his door, so the housekeeping did not enter the room for a couple of days. Post the incident, no student can put up the 'do not disturb' board for more than 24 hours, as the room would be opened with a master-key if such a situation arises. But are there any systems in place for students to seek help? Dishan Kamdar, senior associate dean, academic programmes at ISB, said that We have two counsellors on ISB's payroll who usually come twice a week on rotation or according to student requirements.
Although Xaviers Labour Relations Institute (XLRI), Jamshedpur, does not have a formal structure of counsellors coming to the campus every week, informal methods of letting students vent their concerns do exist. The XLRI culture by itself is very different from other institutes, said Prof P Ray, dean of academics. The informality of relationships between students and teachers automatically facilitates students to gravitate towards the teachers to discuss their personal and academic problems. The teachers are also easily accessible as they are living on the campus. According to Prof Ray, the fact that Jamshedpur is a small town also assists in strengthening the bonds that are built. In jamshedpur there aren't enough opportunities to go out, so the students spend more time amongst friends on campus and the community feeling helps them share their troubles with each other, he added.
One reason why counsellors are the second choice of students is also because of the stigma attached to consulting a counsellor. For example, in Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B), the anonimity of the student seeking counselling is maintained. We have a two-tier system of counselling. One is called the mitra (friend) concept, where a student is trained to do the first-level counselling and the second is the regular counselling service provided by the group Vishwas, said Bringi Dev, adjunct professor and head of communications at IIM-B. Anonimity is an issue, so we have certain rooms assigned which are away from the main hostels. On being asked if Malini Murmu's suicide on the campus has brought any change in the ways of dealing with student depression and preventing suicide, Dev said, It is too early to comment on that.
The Mumbai-based NGO Aasra has telephone helplines that assist in suicide prevention. Upto 56% of the calls they receive in a day are from students contemplating suicide. Although most of these calls are from school students appearing for board exams, this also includes students from colleges and professional institutes. The most common issues faced by student callers include inability to communicate, relationships and education. Helplines like Aasra are available in different cities all over the country.
Johnson Thomas, the director of Aasra says that for a suicide, anything like a break-up or bad grades can be a trigger. The problem with basic education is that students are not groomed in a manner to provide them with life skills for coping with relationship or anger issues that they already have, he said. So while students are already riddled with issues that they have been repressing, the competition and pressure levels of a b-school act as a trigger to accentuate these issues. Aasra conducts workshops with schools, colleges and other professional institutes like the b-school SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, to help students learn the essential life skills and coping mechanisms that are missing. A workshop on social skills covers six topics in all: Coping skills and relaxation techniques; anger management and identifying negative emotions and behaviour; conflict resolution; more advanced modes of relaxation; self-talk and role-plays that lead to calming oneself down; and finally leisure skills that give meaning outside of one's work.
Mumbai-based b-school, KJ Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research has other systems in place. We have faculty mentors we attach to a group of 5-6 students for a span of two years, said the director Satish Ailawadi. There are students from small towns who are mentored by senior students. In fact, after the orientation, the senior students take all the junior students out in the city for a day. This process helps the students form the bonds required to adjust in the new place and a city.
The faculty taking the position of a counsellor or mentor might not always be effective though. At Xaviers Institute of Management, Bhubaneshwar (XIMB), students can express and introspect in the mandatory emotional intelligence course conducted by the director of the institute, Fr PT Joseph. "The students are divided in groups of seven for the course and they discuss their insecurities and fears within the group," said Sakshi Swaroop, a second year PGDM student. "If there is a bigger problem, they can approach Fr Joseph, who gives them personal attention." There is also an Art of Living course on campus that some students find helpful. But is there anything else the students want? "I feel there should be proper counsellors or some kind of meditation, healing or yoga classes on a regular basis. Everyone might not feel comfortable going to the faculty because the course faculty is also our director," Swaroop replied.
In spite of all these mechanisms in b-schools, does any of this help in curbing student suicide? Dishan Kamdar thinks that despite these systems, ultimately an individual's decision is based on many outside factors. Suicides are very personal in nature and it might just so happen that it takes place when the person is pursuing education. In a lot of the cases, the reason is external, he said. But the only way to prevent suicide is to create a stronger bond in a peer group and speak to a mentor or a counsellor on campus. Hearing out the person would help them come out of the downward spiral of loneliness that they feel.