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IISc deaths raise concern over mental well-being of students during Covid-19 crisis

Two students, Rishabraj Mesharam (21), an undergraduate student from Gwalior, and Rajarshi Bhattacharaya (27), a PhD scholar from Kolkata, allegedly died by suicide within a span of a few days last week.

Written by Aksheev Thakur | Bengaluru |
Updated: September 23, 2021 5:47:09 pm
The IISc in a statement expressed condolences over the deaths and said the mental health and well-being of the students were of critical importance, especially given the prevailing Covid-19 situation. (File)

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) campus has witnessed six alleged cases of suicide since last year, raising concerns over the mental well-being of the hostellers. The premier institute even set up a wellness centre on the campus in 2020 to address psychological issues faced by the teachers and the students but two new deaths last week have again left the campus community shaken.

When contacted, most students said they do not seek help from the wellness centre, while some also suggested that the institute administration had been tough on them during the pandemic.

Two students, Rishabraj Mesharam (21), an undergraduate student from Gwalior, and Rajarshi Bhattacharaya (27), a PhD scholar from Kolkata, allegedly died by suicide within a span of a few days last week. In March, a 34-year-old PhD scholar from Bihar, Randheer Kumar, had died by suicide, followed by an undergraduate student, Rohan M (21), in April.

“In the past one year, the administration has been very tough on us. Students have been thrown out of labs by security personnel on flimsy grounds. We have protested against the rigid guidelines of the administration during the pandemic. We hardly had any interactions on the campus and this has taken a toll on the mental health of the students,” Abhishek (name changed), an IISc student, said.

“Most students take a lot of time to open up. While reaching out to the wellness centres is not a problem, the management should also think about resolving the issues that are taking a toll on the mental health of the students. We have tried to reason this out with the institute in the past. The situation is improving now,” he added.

“Most of us stay away from our families. Moreover, we get no one to share our problems with on the campus owing to Covid-19 protocols. The management has turned a blind eye to our problems. The academic pressure is extreme and the pandemic has exacerbated our problems. Many students are taking anti-depressant pills but are not comfortable contacting the wellness centre. The campus of IISc has been turned into a military camp of sorts. This should not have happened,” another student, Devaraj (name changed), said.

An alumna of IISc, Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel, posted a message on LinkedIn highlighting the mental health issues plaguing the IISc campus.

“I request all the past and present members to come together to find a solution for preventing suicides. Just two days after one student lost his life, another UG student, too, chose death… I think it’s our responsibility to help the students…” she said in her message.

In April, a survey was conducted to determine the mental wellbeing of students on the campus, but only 1,000 of 4,500 students responded to it.

The IISc in a statement expressed condolences over the deaths and said the mental health and well-being of the students were of critical importance, especially given the prevailing Covid-19 situation.

“There are two consulting psychologists available on campus on all working days and on Saturdays for the campus community. In addition, we also have two consulting psychiatrists, who visit the Health Centre twice a week. Four wellness coordinators trained in psycho-social interventions and other skills are available on the campus on all working days and on Saturdays for the campus community. In addition, we are starting a new initiative on training students to look out for and identify potential problems early on, so that supportive resources could be accessed in a timely manner,” the assistant registrar and the public relations officer of IISc, Veerana Kammar, said.

“The pandemic has disrupted research and teaching timelines considerably, and we realise that this has put additional pressure on students. Online teaching has been challenging for both students and faculty members; they cannot replace traditional classes in the long run. We will switch back to physical classes as soon as we know that we can do so without compromising the health and safety of our students and teachers. So, we have strongly urged those who are facing any difficulty to reach out to anyone – their classmates, their department chair or the wellness committee members. We have also requested all IISc community members to check on their friends, classmates and colleagues whenever they can,” the IISc said in an official statement following the two recent deaths.

Dr M Manjula, Professor, Consultant, Behavioural Medicine Unit, Department of Clinical Psychology at NIMHANS, told the Indianexpress.com that she does not think that the number of suicides has increased during the pandemic but added that there were increased cases of distress across age, gender and professional groups.

“The most frequently reported symptoms are stress, anxiety, and depression, a normal response to an acute stressful situation such as Covid-19. I have noticed that individuals with pre-existing mental health problems experienced more distress. The crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought in several challenges at personal, social, financial, interpersonal, familial, and professional/academic fronts. It has affected everyone to varying degrees. In addition, catering to the mental health care needs of the large population has become a difficult task,” Dr Manjula said.

She added that several students were unsure of their exams, results, and there were uncertainties about their future academic and job goals.

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