“There is a tendency for parents to push their children to achieve what their parents consider prestigious,” explains Maullika Sharma, a psychologist who gives advice to teenagers.
Education is often seen as a vehicle to help parents and children achieve these dreams. A 2019 survey by the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that Indians have the highest confidence in upward social mobility. The survey linked that belief to belief in the country’s school system.
Nearly 66% of respondents from India say the majority of people in their country have access to a good education.
However, parents and teachers often oversimplify or ignore the realities of the education system. “The economic structure of the education landscape has changed drastically from the previous generation. Course fees are expensive for higher education courses, especially if you come from marginalized socio-economic, caste and religious backgrounds,” said Aratrika, a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics.
A public school teacher in Thandavpura, Mysuru district, explains how much educational pressures have changed and why this has resulted in psychological stress. “It’s pretty good that we got 70% while I was growing up. We will be able to find work. Now, children are denied seats even when they score 94%,” he said.
Higher education is still the best bet for social mobility between generations. However, that is not a guarantee. In fact, India ranks 76th out of 82 economies in the WEF’s social mobility index for 2020. The index measures movement in the personal circumstances of individuals in relation to their parents.
Social mobility also varies among marginalized castes and religious groups according to a study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research. This study finds that multigenerational mobility for Muslims in education and employment has decreased compared to Hindus.
Competitive exams remain different for students studying under different boards of education. “I had to go to coaching classes to succeed. The syllabus covered by the Tamil Nadu board is not helpful in competitive exams,” said Sahil*, a first year MBBS student in Chennai.
“Parents and teachers often maintain hope that children succeed despite these differences and obstacles,” says educator Niranjan Aradhya.
Poornima explains how this pressure is implied. Teachers at his institute often invoke the notion that spending on education is wasted if children do not qualify in competitive exams.
Strong interpersonal relationships with peers and family can help some students cope. Physical exercise, favorite hobbies can also have a positive impact on students’ mental health.
However, there is a tendency not to prioritize this emotional outburst. Poornima, for example, is an avid volleyball player, participating in both her school and in inter-school events. “After Grade 10, I stopped all extra-curricular activities,” he said.
The highly competitive environment also did not allow for the strong peer support network that IIM graduates recall. “My internship was not turned into a job offer in my second year. I started noticing that my friends were starting to avoid or alienate me,” said the 34-year-old.
Network support that was badly affected by the pandemic has never fully recovered. The restrictions imposed caused a cut in the lines of communication between the group of friends and parents. “Children have not yet recovered from the devastating impact the pandemic has had on their mental health. Many still suffer from social anxiety,” explains Dr John Vijay Sagar, professor and head of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry, NIMHANS.
While social media does help maintain peer relationships, the nature of these platforms not only keeps teens from sharing their issues in an authentic way, but also exposes them to a world of anger and shame online. The suicide of two students at Davangere after an intimate video went viral is an example of how shaming on social media can impact the real world. Students experiencing psychological distress do not have a safety net for communicating with non-judgmental people.
Maullika Sharma added, “There is a lot of trauma that students have experienced in the last few years which can affect them in the years to come. The long-term effects are still to be played out and understood.”
It is during this time that they learn and test important life skills such as logical reasoning, problem solving, critical thinking and conflict resolution. “There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the brain develops until a person is 25 years old,” said Dr Vijay Sagar.
Children are also very sensitive to being perceived as a financial burden on their parents. After Jagadeeswaran’s death, a 19 year old NEET aspirant and his father from Chennai, a close friend of Sahil* had this to say, “I got privileged and he didn’t.”
Sahil is in the first year of his MBBS course. “The institute charges Rs 25 lakh per year for the MBBS course. At the end of the course, parents will pay around Rs 1.5 crore,” he explained.
Even though his friend Jagadeeswaran scores higher in his NEET entrance exam, he is unable to go on to a medical course due to exorbitant fees. Jagadeeswaran persisted with his ambition to attain a rank that would qualify him for a seat of government, not wanting to increase the household’s expenses.
Even though the cost of medical education has decreased worldwide, in India, it is one of the most expensive courses. According to a study published in the Lancet, the cost of medical education more than doubled between 2008 and 2018.
This improvement is not limited to medical courses. On average, tertiary education alone accounts for 15.3% of total household expenditure in rural areas and 18.4% in urban areas, according to a 2017 survey by the National Sample Survey Office. In south India, the corresponding figures are 43% and 38%.
Recently, parents have also covered the extra cost of coaching classes. The Poornima family spends around Rs 1.5 lakh per year, or a third of their household income, on her integrated courses.
Far from improving children’s lives, the test prep industry has only commodified further education, explains Aradhya. “Instead of providing a conducive and supportive environment for a child to reach their potential, coaching classes have a myopic approach to learning,” he says.
Most training centers advertise their top ranked students. It’s usually a select few who get the attention of the group, according to Namratha D*, a sophomore who is participating in the JEE program.
Instead of strengthening his chances, Namratha’s fear of choosing a course had discouraged him. “It’s about who does well in the weekly exam. The teachers didn’t engage with all of us. It makes me feel worthless,” he said.
Prince Gajendrababu, general secretary, State Platform for the Public School System in Tamil Nadu, likens the trappings of the industry to horse racing or online gambling.
“It’s easy to give up under this pressure. Many students just drop out. We hear of at least a handful of students ending their lives every year,” explained Namratha.
Mental health resources
The consequences of this highly stressful environment have become evident across educational institutions. Most institutions use interim measures instead of addressing the root causes of problems, explains Anirban*, a graduate student at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).
Challenging job markets and financial difficulties are wreaking havoc on campuses. In a span of seven months, four students died by suicide in 2021.
Soon after, the institution attempted to replace ceiling fans with wall-mounted fans to prevent deaths from hanging. “Being depressed is quite common on the IISc campus. Many students become desensitized to suicide. It is an epidemic but we are still looking for solutions on the surface,” said Anirban.
Although leading institutions such as IISc, IIT, and IIM provide some access to mental health professionals, leveraging such support is not easy. For example, one IIM graduate explained that although therapists visit campuses, they do so, “only a few hours each week and awareness of such facilities is almost non-existent.”
Given that the World Health Organization estimates that globally, 13% of 10 to 19 year olds are living with a mental disorder, it is very important to implement this system and ensure that students are aware of this resource.
Every student has a different threshold and different reactions to different scenarios, explains Dr Vijay Sagar. While it’s hard to say how much of each of these factors—trauma, academic stress, and reduced social interaction—goes into how children respond, developing mechanisms students can access without facing stigma should be the first and most important step, both at home. and in educational institutions.
(*Names have been changed to protect their identity)
With input from ETB Sivapriyan in Chennai
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