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Dealing with student depression and suicide: Causes, prevention and the right way to respond

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal 7 Mins Read

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal


We aren't strangers to the news of suicides by students of coaching centers in Kota, the coaching capital of India. But what desperation drives young, hardworking minds to end their lives? Read on to find out

Pre-teen to Parent
Dealing with student depression and suicide: Causes, prevention and the right way to respond

As a society, we are increasingly becoming obsessed with material progress and economic success. We push our children to secure their future for which we pressurize them to take up courses and make career choices. And, we do all this without considering their personal choices and, crucially, their inherent capacities and abilities.

To achieve the goal of 'Good job, secure future', more and more children are being enrolled by parents in coaching institutes. According to the 71st survey of the National Sample Survey Office, "26% of students (27% of males and 24% of females) were taking private coaching in India combining all levels of education. Incidence of taking private coaching was maximum at secondary and higher secondary levels combined (38% of male students and 35% of female students)."

While the numbers do show that coaching centers are more successful than ever before, there's another side to the story as well.Help your child assess his strengths and weaknesses in particular subjects or areas, and encourage him to hone his skills. Don't focus on your child always being 'the best'. This would teach him to pursue an endeavor he is not likely to shine in. Life at these centers isn't a bed of roses. From being segregated based on their 'ability' to follow a rigorous 12-hour study schedule to an endless cycle of internal tests — all of which take a toll on the children. Children are left with almost no time for life outside studies. Not surprisingly, their morale takes a beating and leads to frequent mental and physical health breakdowns.

Where does all this lead to?

While it is good to have high expectations from our children, excessive pressure to succeed can adversely affect even the brightest students. And, when youngsters are given the impression that an exam can make or break their future, the pressure they feel can give rise to several negative consequences:

  • In the race to achieve the irrationally high cut-offs and marks, children may begin neglecting their physical health. They may not engage in physical activity or exercise, eat healthily or, sleep adequately. Sleep deprivation combined with unhealthy eating patterns lowers immunity to the effects of stress. This can lead to a host of stress-related physical problems, such as ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Pushing children to excel, especially by comparing them to their high-achieving peers, damages their self-esteem. The persistent stress to top an exam or 'be the best' can interfere with identity formation. It may make children feel that they aren't good enough.
  • Children who experience excessive pressure are at a higher risk of developing serious mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
  • Raising the stakes too high instills fear in the minds of children. This makes them adopt a 'Try to avert failure at all costs' attitude. Some children are unable to cope with this fear. So, they contemplate ending their lives rather than face the prospect of failure. In fact, a 2015 study in the International Journal of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences suggests a strong correlation between academic stress, parental pressure, and the mental health of Indian high school students. What's more, another study in Contemporary Clinical Dentistry (2015) noted that a stress-filled learning environment, a high workload, and other pressures coupled with anxiety and depression, lead to suicidal intent or ideation in students.

Why students contemplate suicide

Most of the time, children don't decide to commit suicide at the spur of the moment. They do display warning signs. So, as parents, we need to be attuned to our children. We need to understand when our children are unable to deal with the intense pressure they are subjected to from all fronts.

What you should do

Some children are able to adapt to the environment of cut-throat competition and high strain, especially those who are internally motivated. However, those whose internal motivation has been wrecked by their parents' hypervigilance about their marks and academic future are unable to handle it in the right manner.

There are several ways we can ensure that our children are able to deal with academic pressure:

  • Be attuned to your child: Ask yourself, "Are my expectations from my child in line with her skills and interests?" Passing the JEE (or any other exam) might be a coveted goal, but is it the 'right goal for your child?' Imposing your goals on her will be detrimental to her learning and long-term motivation.
  • Keep the lines of communication open: Encourage your child to talk about his interests and passions. Be open to and accept his choices, even if you may not agree with them.
  • Show empathy: Exam preparation can be extremely taxing. So, at this time, instead of being judgmental, empathize with your child. Tell her that you understand what she is going through and that it's not easy.
  • Don't compare your child with others: Help your child assess his strengths and weaknesses in particular subjects or areas, and encourage him to hone his skills. Don't focus on your child always being 'the best'. This would teach him to pursue an endeavor he is not likely to shine in.
  • Focus on inculcating a growth mindset: You can do this by focusing on, and reinforcing your child's efforts, instead of the outcome. This would inculcate in her a love for learning and a spirit of inquiry.
  • Inculcate a positive attitude towards failure: Make your child understand that one exam wouldn't make or break his future. Encourage him to learn from failures and treat them as stepping stones towards success.
  • Don't shame your child: Teach your child to work hard but don't connect the outcomes of her efforts to her worth as an individual.
  • Inculcate a healthy and balanced lifestyle: Encourage your child to take up sport/physical activity, eat healthily, and sleep adequately. Allow him to spend time with friends as this strengthens his support system.
  • Offer unconditional love and support: Reassure your child that, no matter what the outcome, you will always love and support her.
  • Seek professional help: If your child does show signs of distress, seek help from a qualified counselor or a clinical psychologist. There are also several telephone helplines your child could reach out to.
  • Join hands: Connect with your child's educators and other parents to build networks of solidarity and communication to help each other.

Children find it difficult to develop inner or sustainable motivation when parents show an unhealthy interest in their academic success. Such parental attitudes may also hinder the development of a growth mindset in children because the focus is always on achievement and outcome, rather than learning.

As parents, our aim should be to raise happy, confident, and resilient children capable of taking up challenges and rebounding from failure. Our aspirations should not reduce our children to automatons, capable of cracking the toughest exams but crumbling at the slightest possibility of failure.

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