Kota Suicides: Topper syndrome leading cause of students taking their lives

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‘Students studying in Kota or any institute are away from family for longer periods. Loneliness sets in them, and this becomes all the more important for the institutes to provide students with strong emotional support system.’

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Leading psychiatrist Dr Jitender Nagpal tells Bhawna Malik in an interview that argued for regular conversations to deal with the issue of mental health. He spotlighted that one person in 20 in India suffered from depression. Dr Nagpal, who is a senior psychiatrist at Moolchand Medicity and also Director, Expressions India, National Life Skills & School Mental Health Programme, scorned at parents for treating children as trophies.

Dr Jitendra Nagapal (Image credit Bhawna Malik)
Dr Jitendra Nagapal (Image credit Bhawna Malik)

Q. With 30 years of experience as a psychiatrist, how do you spell out India’s task on Mental Health?

Nagpal: We are optimistic. People are talking about mental health issues. Community acceptance is seen. Geometrically, things are changing very fast. Media is also active. Both from policy and practical point of views, things are moving in good direction. The advocacy and personal stories of depression and anxiety shared by celebrities like Deepika Padukone, Tiger Shroff, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, and others have inspired the people to be vocal about their mental health issues.

Q. Do you agree that we see discussion on mental health when there is an emergency situation only?

Nagpal: Yes, that’s true. Mental health issue is still a taboo, and often it is labelled as a stigma. Some believe in black magic, woodism, and they consult astrologers or tantric practitioners. Faith healing sometimes overpowers the medical treatment. Instead of stigma, the focus should shift to services. We should have regular conversations on these issues.

Q. Can you elaborate on what kind of services?

Nagpal: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been holding radio programme ‘Mann ki Baat’; why not talk about ‘Mind ki Baat’ also. We speak about heart ailments, Blood Pressure, Diabetes. Why don’t we engage in discussions about depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, and schizophrenia? India needs two lakhs psychiatrists, and we have only 9,000. The same goes for psychologists. We need huge numbers of counsellors, psychologists and mental health practitioners.

NIMHANS (The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) and the NHMS (The National Mental Health Survey) conducted a comprehensive survey in India in 2015 and found out that one in every 20 Indians or 5.3 per cent of the population had suffered from depression.

Q Students are dying by suicides in Kota, Rajasthan where they come from far off places to prepare for competitive examinations. How do you look at the trend?

Nagpal: Students are facing pressure at various levels – peer, parents, and performance. The inability to perform or handle the pressure sometimes leads to the students dying by suicides. Expectations of parents and inability of the children to get the desired rank or numbers further add to the pressure. Parents sometimes treat their kids as projects or trophy kids. They seek to live their dreams through their kids. Let kids decide what they want to do – be an artist, musician, writer, singer or any other profession they want. 

I have interacted with thousands of students in the last 30 years, and realised that they feel suffocated and burdened living their parents’ dreams.

Q Why only parents are to be blamed? What about the coaching institutes? Kota alone has witnessed 60 per cent rise in students dying by suicides after the covid-19 pandemic? Students pay between Rs 1.5 to 5 lakhs of fees. In just two months, three students have died by suicide?

Nagpal: At a policy level, fixing the age of the students at 16 years for the coaching institutes is a wise step. Yes, coaching centres are accountable. To give effect to this policy, they must appoint counsellors and psychologists for the students. There should be a continuous monitoring of the students to keep a check on withdrawal symptoms or sudden loss of interest or performance dip. The atmosphere must be cordial and a family vibe must be ensured because students are being mechanised rather than treated like humans. I recommend Sehpaathi and Sehyogi model for the institutes and their faculties. The topper syndrome must effectively be dealt with.

Q. What is Toppers’ syndrome?

Nagpal: We have consciously or unconsciously created a result-oriented and degree-oriented system, and all want kids to become toppers. But we must understand the diversity. Every child is gifted in a different way that needs to recognised along with his /her strengths and limitations. We have 700 medical colleges. Why does everyone want to be at AIIMS? This needs to change. We should instead promote the value of collaboration.

Q. Recently Kota was termed as a suicide factory. 

Nagpal: We have created an ecosystem where exams are feared. Currently, board exams are going on and I have observed parents converting their homes into fortresses. No enjoyment or casual conversations with the kids, no recreation; why? That itself creates pressure. Kota or any institutions must come out as happy places, bringing out happy humans and not just robots or machines. It’s here that teaching life skills becomes extremely important.

Qn. How can educational institutes come out as happy places in your view?

Nagpal: Students studying in Kota or any institute are away from family for longer periods. Loneliness sets in them, and this becomes all the more important for the institutes to provide students with strong emotional support system. They must hold regular life skills’ workshops, and also engage students with productive extracurricular activities. The youth must be taught to celebrate life. Create a happy, cheerful environment where students do not feel lonely. Apart from academics, songs and dance classes can be organised; let students celebrate their birthdays with the faculty members.

Q.  Life skills are seen to be more western in approach. How could they be acceptable to the Indian psyche?

Nagpal: Earlier it was called ‘Jeevan Kaushal’ that we learnt from moral stories and from our grandparents. I started life skills in 2004. Life skills enable the students to face daily life challenges. Basically, they are coping skills.

Q. What role does social media play on young impressionable minds?

Nagpal: I use the term AHA –Anger, Hostility and Aggression. We are living parallel lives on social media. Some of them have 17 hours phone addiction. Emotions seen in students suggest being introvert, withdrawn and recluse or extremely aggressive, hyper and bullying others. I had a case where an eight years old hit his mother badly. This aggression can be seen in juveniles when they come in conflict with law.

Young children indulge in drug abuse, alcohol, one out of eight students found to be gaming addicts. We are aware how Blue Wales game led to incidents of children dying by suicides. Parents must ensure that their phones are not misused. Students are indulging in online gambling and earning money without their parents knowing about it.

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