Mental Health in IIT Madras, Article 3: Inside the Bell Jar – Student Experiences of Depression and Anxiety

By Liza Tom

Note:
1. The views expressed below are not the official views of IIT Madras. T5E is a student-run publication, editorially independent from the IIT Madras administration.
2. Any content below is strictly the property of The Fifth Estate, IIT Madras. If you wish to re-use part or whole of the article, please contact: Varun Sridhar
– Email: t5e.iitm@gmail.com or executiveeditor.t5e@gmail.com
3. This article was written in March-April 2017, but could not be published due to unforeseen circumstances.

Read more in the series:
Article 1: IIT Madras Mental Health Survey Findings
Article 2: Psychiatrist Speaks

This article drew upon responses from both the T5E survey results and individual conversations with students, care providers and coordinators on campus. Some names have been changed to protect the identities of our respondents. You can find a detailed analysis of survey data here.

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I’m in the Medall counsellor’s office in the library. There’s a bright red ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster to my side, and a box of tissues in front of me. I’m listening to the counsellor speak, but I’m distracted by the paraphernalia of the office. I’ve been reading responses from the survey, and I’m thinking of one in particular – “I don’t remember how it all started. But I knew for sure something was awfully wrong. For me, it was the absolute worst pain I could experience. I felt like I had become a balloon and was floating outside myself, I use to cry like a part of me had died. I used to curl up in my bed in the dark. I couldn’t bring myself to seeing people’s faces, couldn’t stand the light falling on my face, I didn’t even feel hungry”

While it is true that most students marked academic concerns and worry about their professional future as potent sources of stress, depression and anxiety can also be triggered by personal experience of trauma, a family history of mental illness, and sometimes, for no noticeable reason

I remember getting a full medical check-up before I joined the institute. The doctor had to certify that I was able to handle the demands of a ‘rigorous academic schedule’. I was awed by this statement, and mildly intimidated. The portrayal of student suicides, particularly those that happen in highly visible institutions like the IITs, was sensational and inadequate. Lurid media articles about high suicide rates among IITians were common, and directly correlated suicide with the ‘pressure-cooker’ environment of the institutes. As I’m writing this article, the T5E survey has recorded 903 responses. Almost half our respondents knew someone dealing with a mental health issue. Responses such as the one above were common, highlighting both the prevalence of mental ill-health and the scary silence around the issue.

“I don’t remember how it all started. But I knew for sure something was awfully wrong. For me, it was the absolute worst pain I could experience. I felt like I had become a balloon and was floating outside myself, I use to cry like a part of me had died. I used to curl up in my bed in the dark. I couldn’t bring myself to seeing people’s faces, couldn’t stand the light falling on my face, I didn’t even feel hungry”

The pressure-cooker theory, while sympathetic to student stress, does not adequately capture the realities of depression and anxiety. While it is true that most students marked academic concerns and worry about their professional future as potent sources of stress, depression and anxiety can also be triggered by personal experience of trauma, a family history of mental illness, and sometimes, for no noticeable reason. For the sufferer, it is a physically exhausting and socially debilitating experience, all the more painful because of existing attitudes towards mental illness. Despite being a physiological condition, depression is especially difficult to spot, even for a person going through the experience. Symptoms vary – these include difficulty with sleeping (or the opposite), constant fatigue, body aches, lack of concentration, emotional distress – and they can often easily be ascribed to other things, or just laziness.

Tamilselvi, a Medall counsellor I met in the library, pointed out that most students meeting her are going through a period of high stress, and she locates this pressure within both academics and emotional troubles. Low grades are a persistent concern, as is dealing with the expectations of your partner and parents. Among the students meeting her, there are sometimes cases of clinical depression. In both cases, friends/ family can usually identify a decided shift in the person’s behaviour, but find it harder to recognise that the person requires professional attention.

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Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BQnhe9sjDxF/?hl=en&taken-by=artificialidiot


Nitya
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Nitya’s parents noticed that she was sleeping a lot even in the day, and that she hated leaving her room. After a traumatic incident, she had dropped out of college and was at home for a while. It was her parents who pushed her to try professional counselling. Nitya told me that she often had suicidal thoughts, and anxiety attacks. It was a combination of therapy and medication that helped her regain a routine. “When you can’t get out of bed, medication provokes you to get up. Without my medication, I wouldn’t be able to talk like this with you”, she says. When she joined IIT, she was resistant to living in a hostel. “There is the pressure of being watched, but with a single room, I feel better”. Nitya was diagnosed with both depression and anxiety (not an uncommon combination on campus). She notes that people might resist therapy because it’s emotionally draining. One might also dismiss their problem as not worth counselling (outside campus, a single session with a therapist can cost anywhere between Rs. 1500 to Rs. 2200).

“When you can’t get out of bed, medication provokes you to get up. Without my medication, I wouldn’t be able to talk like this with you”, [Nitya] says. 

Shruti
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While it is difficult to classify depression into types, student experiences vary. Shruti found that counselling helped. “I used to sleep for hours together and I’d feel tired all the time. Suddenly, I couldn’t concentrate on what was going on. I would zone out on people, even in class, when someone is teaching. Everybody told me that I was maybe feeling a little homesick, I’m distracted or something…But I knew something was wrong…the situation was aggravated and I would wake up with a pain in my chest” says Shruti. She went straight to the Medall counsellor, with whom she was very happy. She was later also referred to the psychiatrist and began a course of medication. For Shruti, having someone listen to her without dismissing her problem was the first step toward getting better.

For Shruti, having someone listen to her without dismissing her problem was the first step toward getting better.

Aman
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While cases like Shruti’s and Nitya’s are relatively uncommon (in that it required medical intervention to bring about a positive change), stories like Aman’s are much more frequent. Aman, a fourth-year Btech student, had an archetypal first two years – hanging out with friends, doing Shaastra coordships and working through internships. But he gradually realised that he hadn’t been happy in ages. “I’d break down randomly, cry”, he says. Aman went through a phase of extreme demotivation. “I felt that people around me were getting rewards but not me…Everyone said that hard work paid off, but I could see that this wasn’t happening with me”. During an argument with a close friend, he told Aman that he should get help. Having someone to confide in was important, but he also agrees that it should be a professional. Annoyed with feel-good motivational videos online, Aman contacted a counsellor through his mother. Talking to her regularly helped get over things. Aman’s concerns were alleviated by a combination of therapy, an excellent campus placement and a crucial reappearance of self-confidence.

Having someone to confide in was important, but [Aman] also agrees that it should be a professional. Annoyed with feel-good motivational videos online, Aman contacted a counsellor through his mother. Talking to her regularly helped get over things. Aman’s concerns were alleviated by a combination of therapy, an excellent campus placement and a crucial reappearance of self-confidence.

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“There was a growing feeling of inadequacy which started manifesting in the form of social anxiety. It became extremely difficult for me to communicate with new people. I started having sleepless nights thinking about the presentations or interviews I had the next day. I bunked classes in which I was supposed to talk. I came back to hostel and analysed each and every conversation I had that day with different people. I started practicing conversations before meeting someone. The fear of embarrassment was unbearable and because of it I kept myself away from things I really loved to do.” (Respondent, T5E Survey on Mental Health)

Together depression and generalised anxiety disorder make for a deadly combination. Being on medication isn’t an automatic cure – medication can take anywhere between a few weeks or months to take effect, and sometimes have unpleasant side-effects (feeling drowsy often is one).

A related issue is anxiety disorder, a condition inducing disproportionate and recurring anxiety in the face of social events, crowds or other aspects of daily life. Symptoms of anxiety disorder include cold sweats, sweaty palms and extreme fear when confronted with the source of anxiety. While most of us experience mild anxiety before interviews or public events, the feeling is magnified considerably in a person diagnosed with generalised anxiety, and wrecks their social and professional interactions. Together depression and generalised anxiety disorder make for a deadly combination. Being on medication isn’t an automatic cure – medication can take anywhere between a few weeks or months to take effect, and sometimes have unpleasant side-effects (feeling drowsy often is one).

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