As the world observes World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, an analysis of data shows that the number of students who were victims of suicide rose by 70 percent in a decade in India.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2021, students accounted for 8 percent (13,089 victims) of total suicides in the nation. In 2011, they were 5.7 percent (7,696) of the victims.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has selected the triennial theme for World Suicide Prevention Day from 2021-2023 as "creating hope through action".
Exams and the education system
In 2021, Maharashtra reported the highest number of students who died by suicide (1,834), while it was 12,659 for the entire nation. While the education system and the spectre of examinations often shoulder the blame for this grim statistic, experts argue that the issue is far more nuanced.
"Education or the learning style cannot be blamed for suicides," said Sachin Chitambaran, Assistant Director, Training and Development at The Samaritans Mumbai, a suicide prevention helpline. "We must ensure children get the time to learn how to interact with their peers, make mistakes, fight, learn, say sorry, forgive, and so on," he added.
The COVID-19 pandemic played a pivotal role in exacerbating mental health issues among young adults. "COVID-19 was an important factor in increasing the mental health issues of the young adult population," said Nelson Vinod Moses, Founder of the Suicide Prevention India Foundation.
"During this period, they were dependent on digital learning, and when they were put back into the normal world, many were unable to even communicate properly, develop friendships, and bond socially," Moses added.
Adding to the stressors are the pressures of academic performance and participation in extracurricular activities, along with the allure of social media, where having a significant following, looking good, and being in the right places fuel anxieties for the youth. At the same time, parents stress that they are not doing enough if they do not enroll their children in IIT or NEET coaching classes, experts noted.
Mental health among the youth
In the 18-30 age group, 56,543 individuals committed suicide in 2021. Failure in examination was quoted as a reason for suicide in 714 incidents in this age group. In the age group below 18 years, failure in examination resulted in the deaths of 864 individuals during this period. Thus, of the suicide victims for whom exam failure was identified as a triggering event, 94.32 percent were below 30 years of age.
Experts note an important relationship between the age group below 30 and suicidal tendencies. "Gen Z and millennials are indeed the age groups most aware of mental health issues. However, knowledge and access are very different in the case of mental health," said Chitambaran.
Access to mental health facilities is also concentrated in Tier I cities in India. Beyond these cities and towns in India, there is a large unaddressed population that requires mental health facilities, experts concur.
According to a UNICEF and Gallup survey conducted in early 2021 with 20,000 respondents in 21 countries, only 41 percent of young people aged 15-24 in India believed seeking help for mental health problems was advisable, in stark contrast to an average of 83 percent across the other 20 nations.
India stood alone as the only country where a minority of young people felt that those experiencing mental health issues should reach out to others. In all other countries, a majority of young people advocated for reaching out as the best approach to addressing mental health concerns.
"The media has an important role to play in educating people against suicide. Movies and the news media need to pay attention to ensure that the incident is portrayed with sensitivity. The media needs to ensure that suicides are neither portrayed as an act of cowardice nor as something heroic," Chitambaran added.
Government initiatives and policy changes
The Indian government and its educational bodies have taken proactive measures to address the pressing mental health challenges faced by the students. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has provided counselling services to students and parents for the last 25 years to overcome mental stress related to exams and results.
The 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) reinforces the significance of counselling systems within educational institutions, aiming to effectively manage stress and emotional adjustments.
In January 2023, the University Grants Commission (UGC) circulated the National Suicide Prevention Strategy, a collaborative effort with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
The ministry's multi-pronged approach includes initiatives like peer-assisted learning and the introduction of technical education in regional languages, all designed to alleviate academic stress.
Under the banner of "MANODARPAN," a government initiative, comprehensive efforts are being extended to provide psychological support to students, teachers, and families, ensuring mental and emotional well-being not only during the COVID-19 pandemic but also in the post-pandemic era.