The suicide of Aishwarya Reddy, an undergraduate student at Lady Shri Ram College, has once again foregrounded issues of mental health care of students. The tragic irony remains that it takes the loss of a life for us to momentarily acknowledge the enormous and long-standing neglect of provisions for psychological support in our country. According to the WHO, on an average there are over two lakh suicides in India annually. More than half of these are by young people aged 18-30 years.
2020 has been an exceptionally difficult year. While the economic fallout of COVID-19 has received extensive attention, its psychological impact has been sidelined. A steep rise in depression, anxiety, panic attacks, claustrophobia, loneliness, death anxiety, paranoid symptoms, insomnia, suicides and psychotic breakdowns has been noted. The targeting of minorities and socio-economically marginalised groups, escalation of domestic violence, sexual abuse of women and intensification of familial discord during the lockdown period have considerably impacted the already vulnerable. In particular, students from deprived backgrounds have suffered a form of intense alienation. I wish to focus on college and university students, while thinking of preventive provisions of emotional care that institutions of higher education need to prioritise.
The demands of higher education are experienced as challenging by most students. However, for women students and first-generation learners, the challenges are intensified manifold. In India, women’s education is still largely undervalued. Apart from some belonging to the aspiring middle and upper classes, most young women have to fight fierce battles with tradition and patriarchy in their families to set their feet outside home.
Male or female, most first-generation learners enter the university feeling lost. The sense of confusion is enhanced as they experience being at the receiving end of the rural-urban and caste spectrum. Differences in class-related mannerisms are enhanced with the English language acting as a huge divider. With some exceptions, friendship circles among students remain within the narrow confines of who is acceptable and who is not.
That the classroom is a space rife with histories embodied in the subjectivities of students is a fact lost to most teachers. Only a few are able to acknowledge that the silent, absent, disruptive or problematic student is the one who is actually feeling isolated and left out. In a recent conversation, a Dalit student said, “So far I have lived my life in hiding, I shudder to think that my classmates will find out about my caste.” Another student from an economically deprived background said, “It is so difficult to speak about my address, my home, the place I go back to each day….” Educators need to remember that access to education is just the first step in the struggle against social injustice. It has to be accompanied by compassionate engagement on the part of teachers and the institutional system.
An education that strives to make its students into questioning subjects runs the risk of challenging traditional norms. It hopes to impart a critical perspective — a lens through which traditional values and familial-cultural aspects are relooked at, at times even critiqued. While most students grapple with a destabilising phase of creative confusion, for some it can turn into a painfully difficult experience akin to an identity crisis. As an inner churning is offset through classroom discussions, students need the comforting and nurturing care of their teachers. Perhaps even more important than transacting the prescribed syllabus is the holding and containing presence of peers and teachers who can listen, empathise and offer themselves as a reliable non-competitive circle of care. The first link in the chain of psychological care is thus a humane classroom, where intellectual discourses on transformative politics are accompanied by an authentic reception of the subjective life of each student.
The second link is an institutional administration that keenly receives and values students as growing adults with valid positions, even when they sometimes challenge the established institutional positions. An administration that is not afraid of students or of “going beyond the letter of the rule” in exceptional circumstances, and one which encourages dialogue across difficult issues, goes a long way in fostering self-confidence in its students.
The third and final link in putting a nurturing culture in place is the vital presence of a space where professional psychological care is available to students. A psychotherapy clinic undoubtedly offers devoted attention to those going through a state of breakdown where one’s emotional life feels unbearably heavy. Instead of solely reading emotional problems as manifestations of mental illness, a psychologist listens to psychic distress as being integral to life.
As an illustration, let me briefly cite the work done by Ehsaas, the psychotherapy clinic at Ambedkar University Delhi. At the time of its creation, this university believed that the pursuit of intellectual knowledge had to be in sync with provisions of emotional holding. A Centre of Psychotherapy and Clinical Research (CPCR) was created with the above mandate. In the last seven years, CPCR, through its Ehsaas clinic, has offered over 23,000 hours of psychotherapeutic support to students, staff, faculty and community. Hundreds of students have walked into the psychotherapy clinic, many from deprived and disprivileged backgrounds, with acute despair, accompanied by fears of ending their life. The Ehsaas clinic has functioned as a space where pressing symptoms have gradually been transformed, through a revitalising emotional journey, into seeds birthing a renewed self-process in the student. At Ehsaas, psychic concerns are understood within the larger framework of social justice.
As I think of Aishwarya, I recall the words of a student with a history of severe neglect whom I met for a long time in psychotherapy, “That I can call you when I feel defeated by my deafening voices prevents me from taking my life. Even if you do not say anything, just to know that you are there on the other side of the phone, holding the receiver and believing that we will together survive this moment reaffirms my will to live.” If at the time when despair was overtaking her, Aishwarya too could have had access to supportive sources she trusted, perhaps a tragedy could have been prevented.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 19, 2020 under the title ‘A listening classroom’. The writer is a psychoanalyst and professor of psychology at Ambedkar University Delhi
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