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In 2019 alone, 5 suicides took place on the IIT madras campus. Since 2009, 14 such cases have been registered. There have been 52 reported and registered suicides in IITs across India, with IIT Madras topping the list. However, there are countless such incidents which go unreported to protect the reputation of the institution and to avoid controversy. Hence, the statistics in fact inaccurately show a lesser number of student suicides in India. The sheer number of such student suicides is a cause of alarm.
Several protests are being carried out in IIT madras post the mysterious death of Fatheema Latheef, a humanities student who was found hanging in her hostel room on 9th November, 2019. Even though the administration of IIT madras claims that Fatheema took her life due to her “academic failure” because she secured low marks in her internals, her suicide note says otherwise. Fatheema’s sister claims that Fatheema left behind her phone with no password and named three professors, namely Sudharsan Padmanabhan, Hemachandran Karah and Milind Brahmem who pushed her to take her own life. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is currently looking into the matter. Political parties such as the DMK also played a huge role in staging protests and asking for a fair probe so as to rule out the possibility of any foul play.
Apart from the heartbreaking death of Fatheema Latheef, IIT madras has witnessed some serious incidents of suicide. In 2016, two suicides took place in a span of 3 hours; a 34-year-old post-doctoral scholar, P Maheswari, and Vijaya Lakshmi (47) took their own lives. The police claimed that “family issues” was the driving cause.
Can suicide be explained? It is indeed difficult to attach a cause to something as intricately complex as a student suicide. Antariksh Bothale, an IIT Bangalore graduate points out in a Quora post: “Suicide is a complicated thing. It looks like a random incident to an outsider, but it is usually the denouement of a long and complicated story.”
Research into the conditions of the institute show that the high level of competitiveness coupled with the general environment of apathy can be very stressful for the youth to cope up with. Furthermore, the need to be at the top of the class, the stress about placement and the skewed gender ratio of IIT Madras leads many students into a state of depression and anxiety. There is also a strong fear of failure and the loss of placements due to project extensions or low grades. One factor peculiar mainly to IIT Madras is the alienation and discrimination few students have to face due to their caste or religious backgrounds;
Quoting an MA student, The Indian Express said, “Even professors who would stand for rights and equality conveniently avoid Dalit students or those who come from poor backgrounds.”
Succeed or Succumb – Common Reasons for Student Suicides in India
Every day, around 6 students commit suicide due to academic failure in India. Due to the high population of the country and the constant pressure to become a lawyer, or a doctor or an engineer; it is safe to say that the youth of the country live in a perpetual state of stress and anxiety. A third year student of IIT Hyderabad committed suicide in October 2019, leaving behind a note which read, “Sorry I turned out to be such a waste.” There are several cases alike this one, where young students simply cannot cope with the immense pressure to succeed and hence succumb to the need to escape resulting in the death of so many bright, young minds. Research shows that 12 per cent of Indian students between the age of 4 and 16 suffer from psychiatric disorders.
Furthermore, there is rampant discrimination and alienation of young people; on basis of sexuality, gender, religion, caste, economic background, etc. Teachers and parents, who are the primary caregivers of the youth often fail to consider the mental state of students and they suffer greatly due to this lack of apathy. There is also a lack of proper mental healthcare and there exists a stigma in the society which restrains people from getting therapy.
The Human Resource Development Ministry has taken several steps to establish wellness centres across educational institutions to help students cope up with stress and other issues that they may be facing. However, according to several alumni of the university, getting any form of counselling was a “distant reality” as there was one counsellor assigned to a large amount of students. This very absence of a proper system for students to get help and lack of support from faculty and family leads students to go down a path of helplessness, with no other way out.
MENTAL HEALTH LAWS IN INDIA – How do they work to prevent suicide?
Most suicidal thoughts are a culmination of an entire history of bullying, mental and/or physical harassment, and negativity. Add to this the social stigma associated with approaching a therapist or a mental health counsellor. The Mental Healthcare Act 2017 aims to create an environment wherein people can get help and live without being discriminated against or harassed. This act takes into consideration the various disorders in thinking, mood, perception, judgement and behaviour and does not focus on mental retardation. This act further states that it is every persons right to have access to mental healthcare and this healthcare would be free if the person is below the poverty line or if they are homeless.
This act insures every person who lives with a mental illness the right to live with dignity regardless of any classification. This act also has a confidentiality clause which states that every individual has the right to privacy with regard to the healthcare they receive and none of their private information should be revealed to any other person. This Act has created a National Healthcare Authority at the national level as well as one in every state. Every mental health institute as well as every practitioner must be registered with this authority to ensure transparency as well as accountability in the mental healthcare procedures. This act also lays down fair practices in the processes of mental healthcare and makes electro therapy and sterilisation illegal.
DECRIMINALISATION OF SUICIDE
The highlight of the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 is that it decriminalised suicide and said that section 309 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional as it was violative of article 21 of the Constitution of India. An individual who survives a suicide attempt must not be harassed or prosecuted. Section 309 was considered to be a “ridiculous” law by medical practitioners and psychologists because it said that by punishing people who attempted to end their lives, all the law enforcement was doing was pushing them to re-attempt suicide. Furthermore, these practitioners also claimed that the harassment survivors of suicide receive due to section 309 was severely violative of article 21 of the constitution which gives every individual a right to live their lives with dignity. This change in law did not come easy and is a highly revolutionary step as it seeks to rehabilitate people who attempt to commute suicide instead of punishing them. This law also recognises the fact that people who commit suicide are under severe stress or some sort of mental disorder and lays down several forms of post-survival care. This includes a change of environment for the individual, socio-economic help by the government as well as therapy and other forms of psychological assistance.
SUICIDE HELPLINE NUMBERS
Our country is yet to have a National Suicide helpline, as compared to the United States of America and other developed countries. However, several NGOs have recognised the need for a helpline, and offer assistance and counselling to those in need of mental healthcare. These are;
Thanal – 0495-237-1100
Pratheeksha – +91 484 2448830
Saath – 079-2630-5544
Roshni – 040-790-4646
Lifeline Foundation – +91-033-24637401 +91-33-24637432
AASRA- 09820466726 , 022-27546669 or 27546667
India is a country wherein an individual is subject to various forms of bias, discrimination and environmental pressures. A good mental healthcare system is a distant reality but recent changes in the law give a bit of hope to the people of this country. Suicide, according to research usually is not a rash act, a lot of thought and complex mental processes go into making a decision to take one’s own life. If adequate help and support along with just a bit of empathy is offered to a troubled individual, a very valuable life can be saved.
Author: Vanshika Kundra from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.
Editor: Anna Jose Kallivayalil from NLU, Delhi.