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Rewind: The Kota conundrum

www.telanganatoday.com | September 17, 2023

The dichotomous purview of success as black and white creates an aversion to failure so radical and outrageous that students feel stripped of their identity courage, and existence
In 1897, French sociologist Emile Durkheim sought to methodologically study the social facts that led to taking one’s life. He proposed that “organic-psychic dispositions and the nature of the physical environment” culminate into the act of suicide. Several years later, psychologists and suicidologists have solidified his findings.
Over 2 lakh students move to Kota annually to prepare for competitive exams such as the Joint Entrance Exam for engineering and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical colleges.

The ‘Interpersonal Theory of Suicide’ states that thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness lead to suicidal ideations. This ideology, intertwined with sociological, biological or environmental factors, leads to the perceived wish to end psychological pain and pressure.

Pressure Cooker Environment 

As per the NCRB’s Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India (ADSI) report, over 13,000 students died in 2021 in India, at the rate of more than 35 students every day. Nestled in the arid landscape of Rajasthan, Kota has emerged as the epicentre of India’s academic crucible, where dreams of securing coveted spots in prestigious institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and medical colleges come to life. However, beneath the sheen of excellence lies a dark underbelly characterised by a burgeoning mental health crisis.

Kota coaching industry is estimated to be worth Rs 6,000-crore. Some students spend Rs 1.5 lakh while others spend Rs 6 lakh per year as fee depending on the hostel, facilities, etc.

With an even lower acceptance rate than Harvard University, IIT boasts successful and prominent graduates such as Sundar Pichai, Arvind Kejriwal and Satya Nadela. Sensational reporting of lucrative salaries, talks of unparalleled experience and exposure, and world-class faculty bolsters the acclaim and eminence of the institutions. So much so that innumerable students — as young as 14 — join the glorious race; perhaps to fulfil middle-class aspirations, or to secure illustrious careers. Last month saw six students in Kota dying by suicide. While the incident isn’t new, it once again led to talks of mental health and psychological help.

Under rigorous academic and financial pressure, lack of recreational activities, parental expectations, poor time management, warped demand-supply ratio, and an overall lack of mental health counselling, students inevitably suffer from egregious stress in this hypercompetitive environment. However, that’s not to say that the hostels, counsellors, and the government haven’t taken abundantly reasonable steps. Of course, they have. The District Collector wrote an inspirational and supportive letter, tiffin providers were asked to look for signs of suicide or depression among kids, the students were asked to solve mental health questionnaires, balconies were fortified with safety nets, initiatives such as half-day study and motivational sessions were implemented. The biggest of all, hostels installed notorious spring-loaded fans.

In fact, the Collector stated in his letter, “You should have thought of what would happen to your parents who willingly sacrificed whatever they had” addressing those who committed suicide. Conversely, a 17-year-old student in Kota who died by suicide in 2016 wrote in her suicide letter that her parents pushed her to study engineering despite her interest, and she was struggling with feelings of inadequacy, competition and letting down her parents.

From the Students Themselves 

In recent times, students from various IIT campuses have been increasingly vocal about the pronounced challenges they encounter regarding social integration. This phenomenon, often referred to as the “left-behind syndrome,” underscores the pressing need for inclusivity and collaborative efforts within these fiercely competitive institutions.

In a recent interview, a student hailing from Surat and studying at IIT Delhi shed light on the daunting dual challenges of academic pressure and fitting into the campus milieu. The interviewee eloquently illuminated the arduous journey of social assimilation amid the diverse groups of IIT Delhi’s student body. This renowned institution serves as a site where innumerable aspirants meet, attracting students from myriad backgrounds; each bringing a unique cultural perspective. Reports of academic and social tribulations have surfaced not only in Delhi but also at Kharagpur and Guwahati campuses. Grievances range from instances of severe ragging to struggles with academic performance, including backlogs and terminations. Oftentimes students are so embarrassed that they cannot share the same with their parents.

Loans for coaching and studying at JEE/NEET hubs are extremely notorious. Several students opt for loans. In fact, there are many ‘specialised’ schemes catering to education loans for Kota.

Students often set their sights on IITs as early as the 6th grade, driven by the prevailing ‘craze.’ (India Today) A student from IIT Delhi articulated, “I felt an immense burden to meet my community’s expectations. The fear of falling short haunted me, causing a profound crisis of self-worth. What if I’m not able to get a job even after IIT? The competitive atmosphere within IIT can easily lead to feelings of inadequacy.” Yet, beneath the surface, the disparity in available resources for marginalised students remains largely unnoticed.

An SC student from IIT Delhi recounted the heart-wrenching story of a roommate whose parents refused to let him share a room upon discovering his caste. Moreover, when his caste was disclosed, his peers abandoned him, driven by the unfounded resentment that he was studying tuition-free. Similar distressing incidents were reported at IIT Bombay, where a student who died by suicide, alleged a pervasive culture of caste-based slurs on campus. His grieving parents attributed his suffering to relentless torment and profound alienation.

Regrettably, these doubly disadvantaged students often find themselves without recourse in the face of such dire tribulations. Tragically, they are left with no alternative but to take extreme measures, bringing to the fore the urgent need for stakeholders to confront this grim reality. Despite the countless pleas from students concerning the burdens of pressure, discrimination and isolation, tangible actions to address the underlying atmospheric and societal issues remain elusive. The anguish of these situations and the gravity of the actions taken are thrust into the limelight briefly, only to be shadowed by the next headline.

Great Expectations, Greater Pressure 

The conundrum here is who is to blame? Why are the measures taken not adequate enough? Psychologists have found that painful words and negative labels increase implicit processing within the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, suggesting that negative labels release stress and anxiety-inducing hormones in children. Children absorb and incorporate negative labels, undoubtingly believing them to be true and carrying with them to adulthood, especially those coming from a familial and authoritative figure.

Startling statistics from the Education Ministry reveal that more than half of the IIT students who tragically took their own lives in the last five years hailed from SC and OBC backgrounds.

Furthermore, academic pressure has been known to increase the prevalence of psychological and physical problems, such as depression, anxiety and stress-related disorders. A student from Kota revealed in an interview that sometimes when a parent calls, “even before they ask how you are, they ask about your rank.” The financial constraints of parents allow several students only one attempt; the unsuccessful nature of which often leads to depression. This dichotomous purview of success as black and white, all-encompassing, and divinely illustrious creates an aversion to failure so radical and outrageous, that a student feels stripped of their identity, courage and existence.

A cruel and haunting echo of self-doubt, failure in our society is a persistent presence that makes us question our abilities and self-worth. It often takes years to unlearn trauma and rewire one’s brain toward healthy thoughts, behaviours, and coping mechanisms. To combine that, an environment that is so structurally stimulated to breed successful students, also breeds cutthroat competition, inadequacy, caste discrimination, mental-health disorders, and ultimately suicide.

Let’s Talk Mental Health 

Kota is failing due to a severe lack of preventative and promotional measures in place. Albeit spring fans are a perceived critical quick fix, a student under insurmountable mental duress will only resort to other means to end their lives. What’s more, to cope with pressure, students also develop alcohol and nicotine addictions. In fact, the walls of a temple in Kota are brimming with cries for help. All stakeholders partaking in the genesis of academic pressure and psychological distress must be rationed through specific interventions.

Dabbawalas ultimately don’t have the professional training or competent empathetic skills to look for signs of distress among students. A mere questionnaire isn’t enough to determine depression or suicidal tendencies, especially factoring in social desirability and response bias. Albeit having mental health counsellors is a welcome decision, the intensity and urgent demand for the same should have been recognised several years earlier.

Long Road Ahead 

The act of suicide must not be looked at as something ‘done’ to induce guilt or to hurt the student’s family members but should be recognised for the immense vulnerability, intense helplessness and despair that it embodies. The gravity behind the decision must be empathised with, rather than perceiving it as yet another news piece from Kota. Unless psychological expertise is roped into the interventions taken, and the institutional tyranny of merit, structural, and parental pressure are addressed and eradicated, all actions taken would be aimless shots in the dark.

Strong regulatory bodies, aptitude tests, mental health counselling services, parental counselling, positive mediums of communication and mental-health sensitisation are of utmost importance. Structural and governmental support must also address the competitive environment and institutional inadequacies. It is only when a psychological aspect is adopted in the understanding of suicide, academic pressure and mental health, can we adopt interventions that aim to address the same.

This article has been co-authored by Swara Shah, FLAME alumna, and Prof. Moitrayee Das, Faculty of Psychology, FLAME University.

(Source:- https://telanganatoday.com/rewind-the-kota-conundrum )