Last week, a student from class VIII committed suicide in Chennai, adding to Tamil Nadu's dismal record of high rate of suicide among students. The girl had not fared poorly in exams - the usual reason for death in such cases, given the huge social burden of classroom performance we place on our young.
She was reportedly 'shamed' by a teacher who pulled her up in front of the class after she spotted her chatting with a few boys in a bus stand. The girl was reportedly upset, and after she died, her family sought action against the particular teacher, creating a furore.
Whenever a young life wastes itself, there is a huge wave of public anguish and collective soul searching. This phase gets over soon and it is life as usual for all the protagonists and the antagonists of the sorry drama that ended.
The suicide of the above mentioned school student from North Chennai has brought forth the various issues confronting urban life as we lead it. Why do some individuals take this drastic step while most others are able to brush off insinuations and move on?
What are the factors which set out these individuals? Are there any early signs that can help in identifying those who need timely help? What is the role played and not played by teachers who are such an important part of their lives at this crucial stage?
Dr Thara Srinivasan, renowned psychiatrist and director of SCARF, feels teachers need to reboot themselves to the current times we live in, where individual thoughts and sensibilities are respected, regardless of one's age.
"Teachers have to be more sensitive. If the teacher felt there was a cause for worry when she saw her talking to some boys, she could have called up the parents and spoke to them. Our teachers are still in the age-old bubble of punishing a student. However, asking a student to stand on the bench or spanking a child (which was routinely practiced in the past) are not acceptable behavior of a teacher, in any part of the world," she says.
R Rajam, a teacher with decades of experience says the teachers' role includes one of counseling, caring and even loving. 'Often, the teacher can handle emotional lacunae in the young's life', says Rajam. Extra-curricular firing by teachers, as in the above case is uncalled for, he feels. Experts agree. "Teachers should refrain from demoralizing the students since our children have hardly any coping mechanisms in place. In this particular case, the student's death is an 'impulse' driven one, and not a classic, copy book suicide," feels Dr.Thara.
In a classic case, typically suicide is a result of long standing ruminations and recurrent thoughts of taking one's own life. Even then, in the first attempt, the person may not be aiming to die, and often families are aware of suicidal tendencies. However, with spiraling cases of suicides - a WHO report says that suicide rates have grown 60 % in the last 50 years, in the developing world, and by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world - there is an urgent need for teachers to change their approach to the way they handle students, say experts.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Chennai school principal says that a number of institutions have roped in counselors to speak to students.
However, she grants that the focus is on helping students cope with exam pressures rather than on social and peer pressures. Since our students come from diverse social and cultural groups we cannot make one cut fit them all. Many students are culturally apart from their parents due to their urban life, while the parents are still in a time wrap, and that is where the challenge lies," she feels. A little restraint by the media in highlighting school suicides is also necessary to strike a balance, she feels. Dr Thara Srinivasan agrees. "Seeing all the media reports, some students mistakenly feel that if there is a problem, then the only way out is to take their own lives," she says.
Clearly, institutions where a child in distress can call for real time help is the need of the hour. Dedicated Child helplines which see a spurt during times of examinations
are yet to gain ground as a source of support for students who suffer such a sense of shame that they want to throw away their lives. The only other choice is to have teachers who are in tune with the times we live in. A time when individual rights and feelings are common currency.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist