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Red Alert! Rising tide of child & youth suicides

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, over 13,000 children & youth committed suicide in 2021 — a five-year high and a rise of 4.5 percent from the 12,526 deaths recorded in 2020 when a minor died by suicide every 42 minutes writes Khushboo Nehaal Jashnani, Mini P. & Cynthia John

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On April 19, the New York-based United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) officially declared India as the world’s most populous country surpassing China which has held this ‘title’ for the past thousand years. However, unlike neighbouring China whose communist regime imposed a one-child per family law for over three decades and irredeemably altered the demographic profile of the country for the worse, India hosts the world’s largest youngest population.

Currently, India’s child and youth population under age 24 is estimated at 254 million and 850 million Indian citizens are in the 24-64 age group — the world’s largest working age population. But, due to half a century of under-investment in education and neglect of human resource development, the great majority of the country’s children have had the joys of childhood sucked out of them and aspirational youth from the lower reaches of the country’s iniquitous socio-economic pyramid are leading lives of quiet desperation. Consider this:

May 8. Mohammed Nasid (22), a student from Bengaluru, studying at a coaching centre in Kota, Rajasthan and preparing for the past year to write the competitive National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for entry into the country’s much too-few 654 medical colleges, ended his life by jumping from the tenth floor of a multi-storey building.

May 11. Dhanesh Kumar Sharma (15), a resident of Uttar Pradesh and coaching for NEET, hanged himself to death in Kota.

May 12. Seventeen-year-old NEET aspirant Navlesh from Patna committed suicide in his hostel room in Kota.

May 25. Aryan (16), a native of Nalanda, Bihar, also prepping to write the NEET, died by hanging in his hostel room in Kota.

Reports of a record four student suicides in a month from Kota (pop.1.3 million) — a small town which over the past three decades has transformed into the test prep mecca of school-leavers preparing to top the entrance exams of the IITs, medical colleges and top-ranked 300 (out of 42,000) Arts, Science, Commerce and engineering undergraduate colleges that provide employment guaranteed education — has sent shock waves through the country’s parents and educators communities, and should have shaken the political establishment.

An estimated 2.25 lakh secondary and higher secondary students are cramming in Kota’s 150 coaching institutes to write the country’s most competitive undergrad entrance exams — IIT-JEE (Joint Entrance Exam) for admission into the 23 elite IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and 31 NITs (National Institutes of Technology), and NEET, the pan-India exam for admission into the country’s 654 medical colleges. These public exams are the world’s toughest with lowest acceptance rates. For instance, the IITs and NITs admit only 32,000 school-leavers per year, i.e, 2 percent of the 1.6 million who write their JEE (Mains) followed by JEE (Advanced) exams. Ditto, the country’s 654 medical colleges admit only 88,120 of the 1.6 million students who write NEET. During the past four years (2019-2022), the Rajasthan police has recorded 52 student suicides in Kota.

Even as the country’s aged and wealthy political leaders — the average age of members of Parliament is 54 and 87 percent of MPs are crorepatis — continue to accord low priority to higher education capacity expansion, the world’s youngest country is confronted with a student suicides crisis as a rising number of vulnerable children, adolescents and young adults are finding it difficult to cope with the burden of parental expectations, peer pressure, and demands of an exam-focused education system. During 2018-April 2023, 103 students admitted into prestigious institutes such as the IITs, IIMs, NITs, AIIMS, and Central universities committed suicide, unable to cope with their ‘world-class’ syllabuses and curriculums. Emerging from a predominantly rote-learning primary-secondary schools system and drilled-skilled in Kota-style coaching centres, a substantial number of students in higher education are unable to cope with creative thinking, analytical and problem-solving skills demanded by India’s globally-benchmarked top-ranked higher education institutions.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), over 13,000 students committed suicide in 2021 — a five-year high and a rise of 4.5 percent from the 12,526 deaths recorded in 2020 when a student died by suicide every 42 minutes. Moreover, it’s pertinent to note that according to a study conducted by the globally-respected London-based medical journal Lancet, the NCRB data is an undercount — suicide rates reported by it are 37 percent lower than in its Global Burden of Disease Report (2019).

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Dr. Latha Janaki Ramanujam

“The major factors pushing adolescents and young adults over the edge are inability to cope with academic pressure and a combination of unrealistic parental and societal expectations, pressure to top exams and enter elite education institutions, lack of awareness and confidence to explore non-traditional career options and fear of ridicule from peers, parents and society. Parents have to take the lead to address and assuage children’s anxieties and fully support them because they have the most to lose if children take the extreme step. They need to rewire their expectations of children according to the latter’s intellect and aptitude, desist from pressurising them to perform, inspire hope and confidence within them, and most important, constantly reiterate that there’s more to life than exams,” says Dr. Latha Janaki Ramanujam, a counselling psychologist and psychotherapist at Jays Multi-Speciality Counselling & Psychotherapy Centre, Chennai.

Against this backdrop of rising student suicides and painstakingly slow expansion and reform in the education system, in this special cover story, the authors of this report interviewed mental health professionals and counsellors to share their advice about ways and means to prevent children and youth from self-harm and suicide.

Helping children manage failure. Learning to cope with challenges, disappointments and often failure, is a rite of passage for all children. However, children transitioning into secondary and higher secondary school are certain to experience peer pressure, and cut-throat academic competition. In these circumstances, parents’ support and advice against fear of failure is of utmost importance.

Inevitably, children will experience anxiety before they write a test, perform before an audience, compete in a sport or even participate in new social settings. Without support and encouragement, they are likely to under-perform, avoid experimentation and risk-taking. Therefore, it’s important for caring parents to encourage and counsel children that failure is an essential part-and-parcel of life and the essential precondition of success. If given counselling, support and advice when they fail to excel, children become better and stronger people.

“Failure truly is the stepping stone to success. When toddlers start to walk, they fail, fall, and stand up. That is the path to learning and growth. Similarly, life is full of challenges and failure including academic set-backs, are part of the process. Parents need to prepare children for failure, with the assurance that they will fully support them to do better the next time,” says Dr. Ramanujam, former assistant professor at Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development, Sriperumbudur.

Parental (and teacher) support is particularly important because popular culture and social media confer mass adulation and celebrity status on the successful in real time, and often plant the seeds of fear of failure in children. Social neglect of under-achievers also makes a deep impact on children who often entertain fears of being ostracised by peers. Ambitious parents who make their love and approval conditional upon children’s good grades and sports success exacerbate the harm that failure can inflict upon children.

“We can’t expect children to manage disappointment and failure when most adults struggle to cope with setbacks. Therefore, it’s important to provide a secure stress-free home environment to help children cope with failure,” advises Dr. Anupama Maruvada, child behaviour therapist, founder and clinic director of CBT2, a mental healthcare facility in Bengaluru

Happy,Mother,And,DaughterProvide full parental support. In this age of hyper-competition, too many parents impose their own unrealised dreams upon their children. Although well-meant, this proclivity generates deep anxiety within children who always need parental approval. Under pressure from peers, schools and society to succeed, children need the unconditional love and support of their parents.

“My advice to parents is to set realistic expectations and refrain from expecting their children to become super-achievers. Authoritative parents who set goals for their children generate high stress and anxiety within them. On the contrary, they need to listen to their children — especially adolescents — with empathy and encourage open two-way communication.

Rajat Soni

Rajat Soni

Empathy is key to allaying apprehension including academic-related stress. Parents need to mind their body language and words, and avoid being harsh. Only when there is inadequate support from parents and friends do adolescents self-harm. I urge all parents to provide children unconditional love and emotional support,” says Rajat Soni, a New Delhi-based teen-life and parenting coach, and author of Un-judge Your Teenager.

Soni believes that first respondents — parents and teachers — should be trained to initiate empathetic conversations with children displaying signs of anxiety, stress which could lead to self-harm. “They should listen with empathy and proactively encourage and refer them to professionals for suicide prevention, counselling and guidance,” adds Soni.

shutterstock_128900924Encourage children to explore diverse career choices. In the 21st century VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world, career choices have gone way beyond the traditional engineering and medicine disciplines. Therefore, there are other options than cramming for hyper-competitive IIT-JEE, NEET and other super-tough Common Entrance Tests. School-leavers today have the choice of a mind-boggling range of new career pathways and vocations such as fashion design, events management, biotech, health and fitness, among others. Moreover, the ICT (information communication technologies), internet and social media revolutions have opened up exciting and unimaginable career options powered by emerging technologies. Getting admission into institutions offering high-quality experiential education isn’t as tough as entering the handful of IITs and medical colleges.

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Mehek A. Sachdev

“There’s an explosion of fulfilling career choices in the new digital age. Parents and students need to acknowledge there are highly remunerating options beyond the traditional fields of engineering and medicine, as also in fields such as sports, music and entertainment. The duty of parents is to identify their children’s aptitude and interests, provide information about career choices and guide them to make informed decisions,” says Mehek A. Sachdev, a Mumbai-based private tuitions provider. “I constantly meet students who are being pressurised to study subjects they don’t have the aptitude for. My advice to parents is allow your children to choose subjects in which they are interested.”

Sanyukta Indane, co-founder of the Bengaluru-based Brain Power Education and Career Counseling Pvt. Ltd (estb.2012), believes much academic stress and anxiety can be eliminated if parents and children jointly make aptitudinally-appropriate career decisions. “Parents should invest time and effort in carefully assessing their children’s personality and character traits and if necessary, avail the services of professional career counselors who administer scientifically designed tests to assess children’s aptitudes. Study the subjects that interest your children, the best higher education institutions that offer related study programmes and their industry placement records. Once a career pathway is chosen, provide information, support and guidance, and assure children of your full support and cooperation, while backing them when relatives and friends disparage their choices,” says Indane.

Suggested online aptitude tests include O*net Interest profiler and MAPP Career Assessment.

Prioritise children’s mental health and well-being. Twenty-first century India’s ballooning student stress, self-harm and student suicides epidemic is a wake-up call for parents to prioritise their children’s mental health and well-being over academic and exam success. There’s a mountain of evidence — consistently highlighted in ParentsWorld — that a multiplying number of children are reporting mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression, with a fast-rising number taking the extreme step. According to mental health experts, as first respondents parents have a special duty of care to be observant and vigilant about behavioural changes and proactively seek professional help. Warning signs to watch out for include intense mood swings, constant talk of death or suicide, chronic depression, social withdrawal, sudden change in diet and sleeping habits, decline in school grades and tendency to inflict self-harm.

“There is no shame in seeking help from a psychiatrist, psychologist and other professionals. Parents should make a list of Important Phone Numbers including wider family members, family doctor, counsellor, and mental health helpline. This list should be displayed in the house. You never know when it could come in handy,” advises Dr. Latha Janaki Ramanujam (quoted earlier).

Several government organisations as well as NGOs manage suicide prevention and mental counselling helplines. They include:
Kiran. 1800 599 0019 (24×7)
Childline. 1098 (24×7)
Mitram Foundation. 080-25722573, 9019708133 (10 a.m-2 p.m)
Voice that Cares. 84488 44845 (9 a.m-9 p.m)
iCall. 022-25521111, 9152987821 (8 a.m-10 p.m)

shutterstock_2777029914 Exam Prep Stress Busters

Rajat Soni, a New Delhi-based teen-life and parenting coach, and author of Un-judge Your Teenager (2020), suggests a 4-point plan for students to cope with academic and exams stress.

Just let go after doing your best. Worry never helps. If you can do something about it, do it; if you can’t, don’t brood over it.

“What if I don’t pass the exam? What if I don’t get a good score? What will my teachers think? What will my parents and peers say?” Such thoughts will take you nowhere. Just let go!

Put in your best, and ask for academic help if you need it.

Prioritise tasks with smart actionables. List out all subjects and in each, the topics/sub-topics you need to study. Now prioritise the topics/chapters that require more attention. Create SMART (S-Specific M-Measurable A-Achievable R-Realistic T-Timed) actionables for each subject. For instance, I will complete physics chapter III in two hours from 2 pm to 4 pm. Write a timetable and work according to it. If it doesn’t work, change it to make it more realistic.

Sometimes, we revise better when listening to our own voice. Read aloud, record your subject, and listen to it. We all have our individual style of revising subjects. Do what works best for you.

Follow a structured study approach. Break your study load into bite-sized chunks. Divide your work wisely, recap and take short breaks. Don’t over-stretch your mind. To retain knowledge, your mind needs to be fresh and in optimal condition. Reward yourself when you reach a revision milestone. Relaxation (not social media) and laughter are best. If you are positive, focused, and relaxed on exam day, the better will be your recall.

Digital detox. When prepping for exams, put your phone on silent mode and check it at planned intervals, for example every two-three hours. Turn off mobile notifications. If you don’t trust yourself, then place your phone in another room.

Suicide prevention advice

Richa Singh, CEO of YourDOST online counselling service, advises parents to take these measures to help young adults suffering emotional stress:

  • Listen to them non-judgmentally and with patience. Don’t accuse them of being weak or negative. Don’t assure them this phase will pass or that these are trivial issues.
  • Be vigilant, observant and encourage them to share their emotions, especially self-harm and suicidal musings.
  • Express and convey to your distressed child that she is not alone, and emphasise that you can be reached 24/7 for help and emotional support.
  • Remove poisonous items and potentially dangerous objects such as sharp weapons from their immediate environment.
  • Volunteer to schedule appointments and accompany them on visits to the psychiatrist, therapist and health and well-being counsellors.
  • Ensure that children experiencing high stress and displaying self-harm behaviour are not left alone.
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