Aspiring career-seekers should be given proper counselling to deal with exam-related stress and trained to handle depression and despondency
The spate of suicides by students aspiring for premium undergraduate degrees has shocked the nation lately. Several commentators have naturally expressed alarm at such tragic curtailment of bright lives in their primes. (Pioneer, September 3). To address the menace, measures have also been suggested for reducing examination stress and for the expansion of career opportunities in diverse fields to save pupils from the gloom of severely limited options presently. Along with this, curbs on coaching institutes that maximise admissions without taking into account the aptitudes and talents of half-informed parents and pupils have also been rightly advocated.
These are promising but inadequate measures for addressing the plague of depression and despondence afflicting a section of our bright adolescents increasingly. Indeed, a broader understanding of the malady of suicides is crucial to escape partial solutions and the predicament of applying remedies that only worsen the disease inadvertently.
The Mental Plague
To begin with, we need to acknowledge that the rise in suicides today is not confined to students alone but appears among youngsters (aged 15-29 years) as a whole and, at a slower rate, in our total population too. Secondly, this phenomenon is not confined to India and is being witnessed even more alarmingly in countries like the USA, Russia, the UK etc., among girls and young women. Thus, the number of student suicides, in India, rose from 9905 to 13089 between 2017 and 2021. However, suicides in our population as a whole rose from 10.5 per lakh to 12 per lakh over the same period. Even more significantly, the proportion of youngsters’ suicides among all suicides rose most sharply and constitutes a third of all suicides now.
These figures, however, tell us only about registered suicides, as per the National Crime Records Bureau website and are expected to report only about a fifth or even a tenth of actual cases, given the stigma and criminal implications of the act, according to several intensive studies reported in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. As pointed out above, global suicide rates have also risen in most countries since the late 2000s. For example, in the USA, among adolescents (15 to 19 years old), the incidence of suicides rose from 8 per lakh in 2012 to 12 per lakh in 2021. (Refer ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).
Thus, the problem of youth suicides is only partly a consequence of exam stress. More significantly, the trend of rising suicides among Gen Z (born between 1995 and 2010) and Gen Alpha (born in the last decade) has been even worse in the West than in emerging economies. A lot is happening in youth culture lately that is worrisome and demands understanding as well as action from the government as well as civil society.
suicides youth graph on the outside, youngsters’ worlds seem much more happening and comforting in all countries now. Many advancements are striking in youths’ upbringing today including a rise in welfare support from the state, the arrival of many more gadgets and conveniences as well as greater respect and freedom for youthful ways across cultures. Besides this general improvements in living standards, life expectancy, literacy and awareness etc. and the expansion of ‘freedoms’ in the post-modern world (including slow improvements in pedagogy and teachers’ and parents; attitudes towards students), over the past two generations, were also expected to reduce stress among students and youth in general.
Contrary to expectations, however, clear signs of rising ailments, mental health issues and suicides among the young have emerged, as signalled above. This paradoxical trend has been explained often concerning the increased suffering brought by an explosion of expectations, created by greater exposure to social media that enveloped young lives, especially after the late 2000s, even in the countryside. Within India, simultaneously, the entry of an aggressive coaching culture, even in Mofussil towns, and the gaping lack of decent jobs for educated youth further added to the gloom around our struggling youth.
But anxieties spawned by social media exposure and bleak employment prospects are not the only ills overwhelming our youth today; the multiplication of lethal drugs, eroding family ties and relationships, rising divorces and incidence of childless couples, ailments related to junk foods and sedentary, air conditioned living and the general egotism amidst receding ‘faith’ especially among youth, all seem to be constructing increasingly fragile adolescent psyche.
More indirectly, the rise of woke ideologies in post-modern settings (incentivising every conceivable minority and victim card, and breakdowns in the face of presumed micro-aggression) have also played a role in the ‘coddling’ of young minds. Lastly, we need to reflect and research whether soft parenting and teaching themselves (which were promoted to alleviate stress among pupils) could be aggravating mental fragility and promoting suicides for reasons our ancestors would never have.
What remedial action can we propose in this dire context? A major strategy to try would be revamped pedagogy or education that gives formal and credited stress on character building through meditation and fitness training as well as free use of biographies and bio-pics (self-chosen by pupils from libraries or online) in pupils’ assessment and every level. Secondly, career guidance and counselling (including free online consultancy with accessible reputed professionals) need to be made available in all senior schools to save students from uninformed career choices. Thirdly, reasonable curbs on anonymous trolls on social media platforms and reappraisal of laws and customs eroding family ties also need serious consideration. Lastly, it is worth noting that any investment in a culture of hope ushered by pending reforms in our aged police, lower judiciary welfare delivery etc. would offer a maximum boost to the morale of Gen Alpha which is now at the cusp of serious technological disruptions in employment and social life.
(The writer is an associate professor (retired); views are personal)