Pioneer Health

Beat the Exam stress


Neerja Birla, chairperson, Mpower, talks about the mental health of children during exams and how to cope with stress & anxiety

India has the highest rate of suicides in the world amongst students — simply due to the unbearable pressure of exams. Between 2010 and 2015, almost 40,000 students committed suicide. The education system in our country is an extremely and unforgivingly competitive one. The cut-off marks for admission into certain colleges and streams can be a ridiculous 97% or 98% or even higher. The pressure of exams bears down so heavily on students that it plays havoc with the mental well-being of their minds.

Around 1.3 million students vie annually for about 10,700-odd seats in one of the 23 Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). Since the competition is extremely tough, each year 1.5 lakh students from all over the country flock to Kota, Rajasthan for IIT Joint Entrance Exams or JEE coaching ($45-million industry). What is shocking is that in the last five-odd years 60 students have committed suicide in Kota.

Even when the stress of exams doesn’t lead to suicidal attempts, it doesn’t mean that all is well. The problem starts with the parents, who become so insecure about the future of their children in this dog-eat-dog world. In fact, kids are conditioned into believing that if they don’t achieve those lofty targets, they will not get into a college of repute, and eventually, miss out on a good job.

Studies show that fear of failure and rejection is hardwired into the human brain, even more than the fear of death. This, in turn, leads to stress, anxiety and depression. Consequently, kids begin to have irrational thoughts about the outcome of the exams. A sense of negativity, self-criticism and worthlessness creeps in. When these toxic thoughts begin to rationalise that ‘I’m going to fail no matter what I do’ that’s when the thought of self-harm begins to look a way out.

Sadly, parents do not put much importance on the mental health of their child when it comes to exams. The bitter truth is that our education system needs immediate reforms. It must give knowledge, hope and security to young minds; not struggles, insecurities and mental issues.

Meanwhile, parents and schools can jointly take steps to help students to deal with anxiety and stress of exams.

First,  parents should stop setting ridiculously impossible goals and targets for their kids. A child must be allowed to breathe and feel motivated to achieve a goal, not get smothered by it.

Second, instead of only talking about what to expect in the exams and how well they need to do, parents and teachers can talk to students about how they’re feeling.

Third, telling a child how many hours their peers are cramming  is harmful. What someone learns in half an hour, another child may learn in 20 minutes or 45 minutes. By blindly comparing studying schedules, one ends up putting unnecessary pressure on a child.

Four, parents can teach children a psychological process called mindfulness’. This means that a child should be encouraged to focus on the moment and what they’re studying instead of worrying about the consequences.

Five, kids must eat well, keep themselves hydrated and get sound sleep. For example, it is a medically proven fact that the deficiency of Vitamin B12 can cause acute depression, paranoia and hallucinations.

Finally, if the pressure of exams is getting to a child, parents must not hesitate to seek help from a psychologist or a counselor.



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