Fathima Latheef’s suicide has not only brought to the fore discussions over discrimination faced by students in IIT Madras, but also the importance of mental health as – according to her suicide note – Fathima felt harassed by at least one of her professors.
Although at present there is a lot of discussion around mental health in the campus, its connection with Fathima’s death has made several students reluctant to voice their opinion without hiding behind a “condition of anonymity.”
In 2017, however, The Fifth Estate – a student-run publication, editorially independent from the IIT Madras administration – conducted a survey on mental health issues and received 883 responses in two weeks.
Among them, 650 of them were men, 229 were women and four respondents chose not to be identified by any gender. The respondents also shared personal experiences of struggling with mental health problems.
At 46.32%, a majority of the respondents were between 20 and 25 years old, whereas 31.71% were between 18 and 20 years and 16.98% were within the 25-30 age bracket.
The survey also took into account the caste of the students and this supports the fact that the students believe that their caste plays a role in how they are treated by fellow students and the faculty in the campus.
Of the 833 respondents, 66.48% were from the general category while 23% were from other backward classes (OBC), 7.81% were from scheduled castes (SC) and 1.81% were from scheduled tribes (ST).
Most students also showed an awareness of mental illnesses and 73.73% of them were certain that it can be treated or managed.
Interestingly, 71.1% of them also claimed that students on campus face mental health problems.
In its publication, The Fifth Estate noted “a lack of empathy to fellow students facing mental health concerns seems to persist.”
It further added: “50 students shared detailed accounts of their experiences with other students and the GSB when it came to mental health issues. A significant proportion of this smaller subset (13/50) reported that their peers reflected the belief that mental illnesses do not exist and must be a passing phase.
Such reactions can lead to a reluctance to talk about mental health issues openly and seek help, and indicates a need to increase awareness on campus.
Many respondents also described feeling judged (13/50) and noticing a complete lack of empathy (11/50) among fellow students in terms of being sensitive or supportive.”
A number of students shared their experiences about grappling with mental health problems in such an environment. The Fifth Estate published a series of “unedited responses” on this topic:
• “The most common responses to me telling anyone are “you don’t/didn’t look depressed”, “stop” and “why are/were you depressed”. There have been a few kind people but that generally isn’t the trend as far as I’ve seen. Most people equate depression to prolonged sadness.”
• “A lot of my friends thought I was being a drama queen.”
• “…I have also observed that in whatever sessions mitr conducts for the freshers, they try to avoid the words suicide and depression. I think that should not be the case!”
• “Many students thought that I was faking my depression and I could not get any support from any student. Though, I got support from my guide and hostel manager and warden. My counsellor also provided support. I think there are many students who have mental illness in some form or the other. It is just that they are not willing to get help. I feel students lack awareness on these issues which makes me sad.”
• “Nobody ******* cares. Everyone is going to judge you. It’s a privilege to not to be suffering from something that’s been stigmatised to this extent.”
• “Oh, there are plenty of secretaries who will dismiss mental illness outright.”
The survey also found that the prospects of their professional future topped the list in the reasons that cause the students stress and anxiety. It was followed by pressure about their academic performance, loneliness, relationship problems and the feeling of inadequacy.
Commenting on this, The Fifth Estate wrote: “100 students replied to the optional follow up question about describing specific sources of stress in depth. Most commonly, respondents described dealing with over-competition and a general sense of feeling inadequate no matter how many activities they took up… as well as a lack of understanding from peers.
The responses pointed out many unaddressed problems: apart from a culture of competition and isolation these include: loneliness caused due to lack of positive gender interactions, low funds faced by PhD candidates with family, bureaucratic and other obstacles in carrying out research, pressure and ill-treatment from guides, pornography addiction, administrative responses to students facing substance abuse and a lack of support, being overwhelmed by multitude of career options, lack of nutritious eating, etc.
A respondent shared that the punishment given for one instance of substance abuse had caused him to develop mental health issues rather than leading to better health and preventing the same (see below).
It may be worth investigating the reasons for students developing substance addictions; and working to eliminate these gateway factors through sustained support and engagement, rather than imposing strict punishments which may inadvertently work against the objective by pushing the student further into substance abuse.
“This semester I have been thrown out of my hostel and have been asked to live outside, for I was caught smoking weed. I cannot tell you enough how ******* traumatic this ‘punishment’ is. I feel like I’m wanted for a thousand murders and a hundred thefts. I had never experienced paranoia in my life before this semester and the last. Living on the run out of a bag. Obviously a family that doesn’t live in Chennai cannot shift here for their child, leaving behind whole lives. I cannot take a ******* semester off as well, why will anyone in their right minds say okay to that and agree to waste a year away….
I’d like to think I did not have any mental health issues before this semester and the kick out. I now do have them, I am beginning to go mad, I kid you not, I know it for a fact, my friends see it happening, I am paranoid, I have well-demarcated mood swings and I cannot concentrate or focus on anything.”
When asked if they know anyone who is suffering from mental health problems, 48.87% of the respondents said yes while 53.79% of them said they experienced depression, anxiety or a related mental health issue. 34.39% of the students also said that they were aware that they were suffering a mental health issue, at the time they were facing it.
According to the survey, 30% of the respondents said they faced depression, 17.45% had problems with anxiety and 16% had suicidal thoughts, had attempted suicide or had inflicted self-harm. Also, most of them linked depression to social anxiety and loneliness.
To this, the student media body stated: “This is cause for alarm and a call to pay closer attention to the mental and emotional stresses faced by students. Many respondents wrote in that they are currently fighting suicidal impulses and thoughts. We request these students to please reach out for help and confide in someone. For example, you can call Sneha’s suicide prevention helpline at 04424640050.”
The Fifth Estate also published a series of “unedited responses” which give a raw and powerful glimpse into the lived experiences of depression and other mental health problems.
• “Strongly considered suicide (not the first time) this morning at 9AM. Called 2 Medall counsellors and the Aasra helpline. NOBODY ******* PICKED UP. Researched suicide options – pills, slitting wrists, etc. Realised repercussions if I’m unsuccessful in killing myself. The possible mental and physical medical problems that I’ll have to go through (from what I read online), in addition to continuing feeling like an absolute pile of shit. Got phone call from parents (coincidental). Spoke to them. Quietly cried on phone when I began to think about what my death would do to them (they didn’t realise/hear me – were still talking about some family gossip shit while I pretended to listen). Gave one or two word answers to end call quickly. Yelled at myself for being so ******* weak and messed up. Screamed into pillow. Decided to not kill self. Went on living my shitty life. ******* coward I am no? I agree.”
• “Honestly, it’s really difficult. One can either live through this experience as though one were in denial of reality. Or one could drag oneself through it and cook up a load of issues. I would say I’m somewhere in between. When faced with personal as well as academic pressure my mind simply caved in. Since I’m an attendance freak, four years of continuous classes and deadlines finally took its toll on me. I felt used and tired and helpless. I decided to take the week off to recuperate and centre myself. Instead I began cutting my hands. By this point I had ceased to feel pain. Cutting didn’t work. I kept at it because I didn’t know what to do. This is ongoing so i have no idea how this will end.”
• “I don’t understand the point of me being alive.”
• “I’ve suffered from severe social anxiety and depression when in campus. I find the general environment quite hostile for people going through stuff like this. There have been times when I did not come out of my room for days together and no one noticed, not even my wing mates. I missed many classes, but no prof questioned me till they had to check attendance to award a W.”
• “The doctors in the Inst. hospital (other than the psychiatrist) seem to be very poorly informed and quite insensitive to mental health issues. When I approached them for the sake of a friend, I found their attitude quite paternalistic and dismissive of the suffering. It seems like if one is physically healthy but otherwise in pain, mentally or emotionally, the doctors do not care.”
• “Unhealthy competition is one of the main reasons, despite being in an IIT and being an above average student myself within the campus, the atmosphere feels so hostile. It feels like survival of the fittest is placed upon the students every time with all these tons of graded exams and each person doing three to four extra curricular activities in addition. If anyone thinks that’s their passion, then they couldn’t be any more wrong.”
Fathima’s death was the fourth in a year in the institute and with mental health being in the spotlight now, students at IIT Madras are now demanding that the administration set up a body of experts to look into the pressures students face, especially those from marginalised communities or backgrounds.
Their demands have not been met yet.
(Suicide is not the solution for any problem. If you are feeling lonely or depressed, help is at hand. Contact SNEHA helpline: 04424640050)