By – Aditi Mahajan, Varun Kishore Kumar, Yash Sheth, Namya Agarwal, Ishan Tyagi, Apoorva Pradhan, Saksham Gupta

Coaching institutes should be shut down by the government, wrote a 17-year-old student before jumping to her death from the fifth floor of her residence in Kota on April 28. 

And this isn’t something we haven’t read before, right? Many students in Kota, the ‘city of wonders’ are reeling through similar times of unbearable stress and expectations. These students are merely 16 or 17 years old and are, 9 times out of 10, not mature enough to tackle the consequent depression effectively. And so there are cases of suicides. Suicides that just pass off as a report in the newspapers. Because after all, who would care for 30 out of a total student base of 3 million! Well surely, if so much stress is being mounted on them to clear JEE and get into one of the coveted IITs, then any logical man would label IIT as a bed of roses; a fruit meant only to savour; earned after years of burying yourselves in books.

Alas, that is not the case. Plagued by suicides for the past several years, things are not much better here. IITs are supposed to be the most coveted institutions of the country. The “factory” to produce India’s leading faces and propel India to an era of technical brilliance. So, it’s natural to ask the question, ‘What is there in these places that is causing all this?’ ‘What is forcing students to abandon their pursuit of their dreams and plunge into the deep recesses of depression?’ Or is there something we are missing here? Well, let’s try to find out.

The suicide attempt by a fresher in Vindhyachal hostel and the suicide by a PhD female student must be fresh in everyone’s memory. According to reports, academic stress and a severe lack of interest in engineering (that’s not new) led him to take this unfortunate step. India’s premier engineering and technical institutes have seen a rash of such deaths (or attempts of) in the past couple of years, raising questions about the high-pressure environment young students are being subjected to. Recently, Hindustan Times published a news report regarding IIT Delhi’s decision to revamp its academic curriculum, a very obvious culprit when it comes to depression in a student’s life. According to the director, this action is being taken on the basis of the results of an internal survey. While the counselling services may point out several reasons for students undergoing depression, it is crucial to understand the perspective of our key stakeholders, the student community of IIT. In order to understand the potential causes of depression and suicidal tendencies among the students in greater detail, we present to you the results of the survey which was conducted jointly by the Wellness Club, NSS and BSP under the guidance of Prof. Rahul Garg and Prof. Sanjeev Jain. The results of this survey were presented to the administration by Prof. Ravinder Kaur, head of HSS IITD.

THE SURVEY

The 1400 student-base survey was aimed at tackling issues related to Substance Abuse, Insomnia, Time Management, Stress, Anxiety, Language Barriers, Absence of life goals, Relationships, Satisfaction with Department, CGPA – factors which may boil down to depression. It was based on the belief that the current system is optimized to produce a struggle between what one is required and to do and what he wants to do. It then becomes an Us vs Them (Administration and IIT system) story for the students.

This survey was conducted primarily for undergraduate students (over 50%) as the competition at this stage of college life, is more profound and the students, relatively less equipped to handle depression.

Based on the responses collected during the survey, it was seen that 67.5% of the students said they were stressed while a disturbingly large 24.1% said they were going through depression in some or the other form. And when a quarter of the ‘cream of the nation’ says that, you know there is a big problem! The survey identified 16.76% of the respondents to be suffering from insomnia which has been stated as one of the common symptoms of depression and stress in individuals.

This survey not only tried to analyse the potential reasons behind stress and depression but also the general trend in behavior, habits and lifestyle of those who were depressed. This can be helpful in identification, diagnosis and corrective actions before it assumes dangerous proportions. In most suicide cases, friends are unable to perceive the extent of depression of the concerned person. And that is essentially why it is necessary to talk about this.

While many students may argue that drugs and alcohol act as stress busters and help overcome depression, it was seen that majority of the students undergoing depression resorted to alcohol and drugs. Surprisingly, students who spent their free time watching TV or Netflix shows also formed a considerable portion of the depressed thereby indicating that lack of proper time management could be potential reasons behind depression. Family and financial issues were also cited as causes for depression by many of the respondents.

Now an important question is, how exactly would you define well managed time? The pressure to outperform others in academic and extra-curricular spheres besides being “socially unawkward”  seems to have defined time management for most of us in IIT Delhi. In line with the herd mentality, excelling in academics while at the same time establishing yourselves in sports or cultural activities and finding enough time to chill with friends has become the most widely accepted definition of well-managed time throughout the IIT community. However, effective time management should mean differently for each one of us depending on our career goals. Introducing guidance in different spheres of student life will help them make informed decisions, manage their time in a truly effective manner, handle peer pressure and be much more confident about themselves. The survey team came up with the solution of starting Professional Career Guidance, Career Planning and time management workshops at IITD. Besides helping break away from the herd mentality it will help students make more career oriented choices at IIT.

What all people do apart from the options in the survey    Courtesy: Survey Team

Also, it is very important to know how do students attempt to get themselves up and running after periods of feeling low and depressed. Maximum students resort to browsing stuff on the internet or social media or try to sleep it off alone in their room. Sports is also another avenue and while it is good to see that some students are utilising sports as stress-busters, a worrying finding from the survey was that only 50% students engaged in sports. Surprisingly socializing comes 5th and this clearly indicates a feeling of lack of support from friends. Very few respondents said they approached SCS in such situations. It would be worthwhile pondering over this scepticism towards seeking help from SCS. Is it the stigma attached to being a SCS “patient”, confidentiality issues, lack of awareness, dissatisfaction with the service or something else?

 

When asked to list the four main causes of stress in their life at IIT, as expected, 61% of the respondents voted academics. Another 59.4% voted time management, 35.7% food quality in mess, 24.7% lack of proper guidance and 18.9% loneliness. And it is in these numbers that the solution is expected to lie.

Now, let’s talk about freshmen. They are the most vulnerable to stress and depression due to a whole lot of additional reasons. The new environment, mismatch between their expectations from IIT and the reality,the newly found independence, emotional separation from families, the cut-throat competition, the “overflowing” basket of activities and opportunities outside the classroom, are just some reasons that stand out.

When asked about handling academics (which was the main reason for stress by a majority) at IIT, the survey results showed that nearly 50% had trouble in managing time as freshers. While 25% said they found courses to be hard, a shockingly high 20% complained about poor teaching quality. These are some issues that are in the institute’s agenda as you shall see in the following section.

 

 

THE ACADEMIC SYSTEM

So now we can see why IIT Delhi decided to target the academic system first. But it’s not just a realization limited to IIT Delhi. Amidst the spate of suicides last academic year, there was a presentation at the IIT Council regarding the causes of high levels of depression among students. A consensus was reached on academics being the most important reason, suggesting that academic reforms are needed at a pan-IIT level. So, we present to you the changes that you can expect in the new academic system.

  1. There will be recruitment of at least 100 more well-qualified PhD Scholars and plans are afoot to strengthen the TA system and make tutorials an active part of the timetable. This is to increase the understanding of concepts covered in lectures (whose strength often goes up to a staggering 400 students per professor for freshmen courses). This will also help the students to apply what is taught in lectures. The 1-2-3-4 projects are also an effort in this direction.
  1. There shall be no reductions in the theory of a subject, although more hands-on experience will be encouraged. The director believes that there should be a gradual increase in load from the first year to the fourth year.
  1. The courses of the 1st semester of the Freshman year will be taught by the best faculty in the department concerned (those who have won awards for excellence in teaching) so as to ensure that students do not lose interest in the subject. In the past, the selection of professors was a departmental exercise. The change is being planned as the director was disturbed to learn that in a particular freshman course (we don’t need to name it, do we?), roughly 50% of the students had failed. In these cases, it becomes necessary to look within the department as such cases can only arise if the course supervisor is unable to form a meaningful and effective connect with the students.
  1. The induction period of freshers is set to be increased to a week, so that they find it easier to get attuned to the rigor of courses.
  1. On the administrative side, plans are shaping up to meet course coordinators at least once a month to monitor the academic progress of the students.

THE CHALLENGES

While these are great steps in themselves and can bear fruit if implemented properly, there are still some issues holding us back and yes, many of these were acknowledged by the director himself.

  1. IITs have, in the recent past, been plagued with a miserable student-faculty ratio. Prof. Rao is well aware of this fact and believes that several of the academic problems of IIT Delhi including stress and depression can be alleviated if the ratio is brought back to a healthy level. If the interaction between a student and a teacher is increased, the student can find it easier to approach him as a mentor with problems he might be facing, both academic and personal.
  1. There is still a stark difference between expectation and reality as perceived by the students. After 4 years of studying Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, students expect that they will learn something “technically-cool” at IIT. But when they get here, they discover that the initial teaching is largely along similar lines. The director remarked, ”Of course, the student will get bored.” Also, freshers expect the curriculum to be easier, something which is not the case in reality as the findings of the survey showed.
  1. Most of the changes in the system are being made for freshers.  However, academic stress runs throughout all years of a student’s life. Targeting the academics of senior years is yet to be done by the administration. Killing the devil when it is young and weak is a good strategy. But what if it manages to grow old? 
  1. Regarding increasing the recruitment of professors, there are several blockades that IITs face. The status quo is that it is easier for an IIT to recruit a professor of an engineering branch than a professor of pure sciences or mathematics (Keeping in mind that most of the freshman courses are from these departments). The only option left is to recruit from abroad, but this road is beset with bureaucratic hurdles like:
    1. Professorship of an IIT is a government job, and government jobs are not offered to foreign nationals due to nationalist sentiment. The way to circumvent this is to offer a temporary contract of 5 years and keep extending it but more often than not, this is not agreeable to the professor.
    2. There are issues in the visa requirements for foreign nationals wanting to live in India.

 

STUDENT COUNSELLING SERVICES 

But can we always blame the administration? An IIT Guwahati Masters male student and a female student pursuing her PhD in Water Resources at IIT Delhi must surely have been mature individuals with an independent sense of decision-making and a reasonable interest in their academic fields. Yet they succumbed to the unrelenting claws of depression. In another case, a third-year student was good in academics and yet he committed suicide. In his case, he gave in to the bullying and torturing by other students in his institute.These factors are equally culpable and that is primarily why bodies like the Student Counselling Services exist. The main function of this body, which has been established in all the major IITs since 2011, is to counsel the IIT community. And it is here that most of these reasons “should” be tackled effectively.

Here is a list of all the services that SCS is equipped to offer:

Courtesy: http://www.iitd.ac.in

There is certainly a dissonance existing between the students and the on-campus counsellors of the SCS. An interview with the sole permanent counsellor of the SCS, Ms. Shachi Mathur, gives a clearer picture of the said scepticism.

The Student Counselling Services of IIT Delhi is a couple of 90s format office rooms, right next door to the UG section of the campus main building. These rooms see over 500 clients a year on an average, some of them for multiple sessions. Ms. Mathur estimates around 3 out of every 5 students to be undergraduates. Regarding the stigma associated with the SCS and the ‘patient-shrink’ views, Ms. Mathur says they are to be seen as therapists, not shrinks. She further talks about students not realising the existence of a confidentiality clause, which allows them to avail services of the SCS even in cases of substance abuse and rehabilitation. Substance abuse, she clarifies, is not the majority of cases the SCS deals with. Although some of them come with parents worried about falling grades, she feels most of these students are in need of the emotional support and care that they had at home. Practically none, she says, are Delhiites, or people with parents close to Delhi.

On being asked about the effect of a possibly pressurizing curriculum, however, Ms. Mathur has this to say: “There are students from each branch who study and are able to maintain good grades. More than the curriculum itself, there are several emotional factors that come into play. A relationship going stale or an ailing family member back home, during the time of majors, say, can have a huge impact on studies.” The administration’s decision about revamping the curriculum is something she was not aware of. The student counselling services of the campus, it thus turns out, had no say in the dynamics of a change that will have a huge influence on the students – of this very campus.

Ms. Mathur’s un-consulted ideas are as follows – “I believe tough curriculum is not the major cause of most cases of depression. Students in IITs are people who come here knowing how to study well to score marks. Yet, when pressure comes to them from multiple side, such as club activities, relationships, family troubles, homesickness and peer pressure in addition to academics, I believe letting one side slack a little bit is definitely going to provide emotional relief. Personally, however, suicides on campus would be vastly reduced if only our academics taught us more about ourselves – about physical and mental well being, and how to take care of your own as well as others. That level of holistic well roundedness can never be replaced by more lab sessions or practical classes.Maybe she has a point. Alas, only time will tell.


And it is to tackle such non-academic issues that IIT Delhi is planning to follow in the footsteps of IIT Madras, which was the first to start an online counselling service among the IITs –  through a tie up with YourDOST, an emotional wellness platform. If IIT Delhi is able to finalise a similar deal with YourDOST, it will be a huge boost to increase outreach to students and also ensure that our counsellors in SCS can dedicate more time to certain extreme cases due to a less-packed schedule.

But what of the students, the primary beneficiaries of these counselling services. Let’s see:

  1. I was not getting good marks even after trying my best so I decided to go to SCS. There she asked some basic questions from me and I realised that I am overly- dependent, over-thinker and over-emotional. I was not even sleeping properly due to stress and was not performing well because of lack of confidence. I regularly visited her and shared whatever was going on in my life, and I really enjoyed those sessions. But then after some time, I realised that she is not getting my problem. I asked her to help me in a situation but her suggestion was so illogical for me. So I stopped visiting her. But she helped me figure out my problems and I started working over them by myself. I had already told her earlier that I was in a relationship and whenever I told her about my problems, she suggested only break up. I was very sure that my relationship was in a good mode and it wasn’t having any negative impact but she wanted me to believe that it was the cause of all problems. I felt she had some anti-relationship ideology and so I slowly stopped going as I wasn’t getting the correct solutions to my problems.                                                                                                              -Anonymous
  1. I visited SCS for the first time in June, 2016. I had never been an expert in human relations, and a few events had led to me being very confused, and unable to focus on a lot of things. I talked to a few close friends, and that didn’t help, so I decided that I need professional help. I believe that it was one of my best decisions to go there, even when I was perfectly fine and just a little confused, because what followed in the next seven months was probably the worst phase of my life. I was diagnosed with acute depression, and had to consult a psychiatrist. Thankfully, I was visiting SCS, and the counsellor there helped me stay strong. She helped me take the smallest decisions, prevented me from taking any drastic steps, and helped me at every difficult moment. The frequency of sessions increased to twice a week. The counsellor even gave me her personal number, and asked me to call her anytime I wanted to talk. I didn’t have a pleasant relationship with my parents, and didn’t want her to share it with them, and she didn’t. But, she did advise me to tell them, and I did. Even after I was much better, I continued to visit SCS. It was good to have someone experienced to talk to.

SCS, I believe, is not a place for only the people who are depressed or don’t have anyone to talk to. It’s for anyone who needs professional help, with pretty much everything. Sometimes, your friends can’t help you with everything, and you need someone more experienced in dealing with the issues. So I would really advise everyone, to visit SCS in case they have any issues in IIT or in their personal life. The counsellors there are friendly and understanding, and your privacy is maintained. You don’t need to worry about anyone judging you, because nobody does. As far as I have observed, there is absolutely no stigma in IITD about visiting SCS, and your friends will only be more understanding and helpful if you choose to tell them.  

                                                                                                                         -Sarthak Mishra (3rd year)

From these accounts, we can see that the relationship between SCS and an affected student can’t be generalized. It is prone to subjectivity beyond the scope of any logical analysis. While there may be people who found their visits to SCS unfruitful and ineffectual, there have been some whose cases have been able to justify the existence of this student-counselling body in all the major IITs.

 

  WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?

  1. Despite professional help available in college campuses students hesitate to go to the counsellors. One implementable solution that can be considered by the institute is to have a mandatory session in the counselling service for each fresher once during their first or second semester. This can help gauge the scenario of freshmen by the counsellors and can identify cases of depression and have multiple sessions with them thereafter to treat the cause. This will also help to remove the stigma associated with going to SCS, if at all such a stigma exists.
  1. For freshers the initial phase demands a lot. Apart from academics, they also have to internalise the opportunities available in extra-curriculars, clubs, sports along with adjusting to the hostel environment and the newfound peers. Reducing the first semester weightage in the cgpa for the first year probably could provide some relief.
  1. While an induction period of a week long is in the fray for the freshers, increasing that period to a month or so will allow them to adjust and mingle more effectively. This will also reduce the burden on the academic system as freshers will be more comfortable to deal with academics thereafter. IIT Mandi and IIT Gandhinagar are already implementing this successfully.
  1. In order to tackle the academic set back of the majority of freshers, the survey team came up with a viable and convincing solution. An interaction of students entering second year (i.e. who have completed first year) with the professors who will take the course for the next batch of incoming freshers could help the  professor in understanding the concerns of first year students. These feedback sessions can also be conducted after the first semester when the students from Batch A go to Batch B and vice-versa.
  1. According to an article published very recently in the Hindustan Times, IIT Kharagpur has taken a holistic stand on the issue of depression by planning on installing free coffee and tea vending machines on campus, so that students venture out of their rooms and begin to mingle and communicate. The hostel administration also cuts off power to a hostel for an hour for the same purpose. IIT Delhi can incorporate a similar system considering that the survey showed that most of the IITD community will feel better through more socializing and engagement with people from other groups.
  1. There should be a male counsellor in campus. Currently, SCS has only female counsellors. And on some personal or emotional topics, it might be more comfortable for male students to interact with a male counsellor.
  1. A possible solution, as Prof. Kaur suggested, can be a student helpline manned by a student  trained to detect whether the caller is at immediate risk of committing suicide or not. Bodies like Wellness Club, SMP and SCS could collaborate for such a helpline in case the YourDOST online service is not roped in.

 

We would like to thank the Director Prof. Rao, Prof. Ravinder Kaur and Dr. Shachi Mathur for their precious time. We would also like to acknowledge the entire survey team for sharing their results with us and Prof. Sanjeev Jain for allowing us to use them.

 

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