These are children, not sugar cubes
Data is rather dated but in 2007, five children killed themselves every day because of “failure in examination”. How are they able to do this? Having been through two failures — once in Class 11 and once in first year of college — I know the trauma that accompanies such a misadventure. But suicide?
Many years ago, as students, my friend and I wondered whether a person who commits suicide was “brave” or “weak”. The traditional argument is that it’s more difficult to come to terms with failure — in exams, in love (nine people killed themselves every day because of this), in getting a job (seven a day), in family issues (80 a day)…all told 336 suicides a day — and so the weaker of the species obliterate themselves.
But I’m not so sure. I’ve personally been through many failures, often serial ones. There have been times when I though is life worth living. But the thought of suicide frightened me. I was too much in love with my life to give it up. So, are all those who choose to kill themselves brave? Again, I’m not sure.
Children killing themselves for something as insignificant as “good marks” disturbs me to no end. Where do they get the courage from? What is it that is pushing them over the edge? Is it parental pressure, peer pressure, pressures from schools, mass media, culture? I think it’s a mixed bag of reasons, a Pandora’s Bag if I might stretch the term. We may not know the reasons, but we do know the symptoms:
“Devastated. Feel complete failure. Try in vain to find good reason why I should have failed (early dementia, slow growing tumour, transient global amnesia) but sadly cannot escape the fact that insufficient factual knowledge is to blame. Hang head in shame and return to work the next day to face the music. Self esteem at lowest ebb ever. Feel even incapable of writing out a drug chart because so obviously incompetent.”
That’s a briefing by Elizabeth Clifford, registrar in child and adolescent psychiatry, Wycombe in Psychiatric Bulletin, published by The Royal College of Psychiatrists. Do go through it to understand a child’s sheer helplessness, perplexity and inability to deal with failure.
Ironically, in my quest to shed some light on this worrying trend in an India that’s just about beginning to stand straight and grab its place in the world, I failed. Of the little India-specific material I could lay my hands on, I found reports by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences useful and would recommend teachers and parents of children in classes 8 through 10 to go through some of them.
Student suicides in India is an extremely under-researched subject — I wish scholars of psychology, behavioural economics and neurosciences get together and in an interdisciplinary study, bring out just what is going on in an India that all of us are dreaming about and creating.
Luckily, there’s enough material on international sites. I particularly liked this page by University of Cambridge on Reducing the risk of Student Suicide: A Guide for those with Welfare Responsibilities. Among many other insights, it cites 10 reasons why a student might attempt to kill himself — loneliness; feelings of hopelessness and helplessness; feelings of worthlessness, of being ‘a waste of space’; depression; plans falling through; inappropriately high levels of stress; anger; alcohol and drugs; a history of mental or physical illness; feeling overwhelmed.
I think it’s about time that Indian scholars got out of their theoretical confines and attempted serious research that looks at the following:
1. Why students as young as 14 or 15 are even thinking of suicide as an option.
2. What needs to be done at the counselling level — not merely of the child but of his/her parents and teachers.
3. How to give him the strength to cope with failure, to make him realise that while bad marks can hold him down temporarily, good marks are not necessarily a passport to great success.
4. At the level of public policy, how to create an education system that while pushing for excellence, does not overtly penalise the laggard. To see what educational institutions can do on this front, this report by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals could help.
5. Beyond public policy, help redefine success, such that each child can express the truth lying dormant within him and not measure himself by outside stimuli like marks or narrow opinions of those closest to him.
Our children need our protection, our compassion, our understanding…most of all our love. Let’s not dump our insecurities on them and create an education system no different from the factory where sugarcane is crushed into smart, white, equal-sized sugar cubes.