In order to create a dialogue between the administration and the students on the issues that were widely debated in the aftermath of the recent suicides, T5E, SAC and MITr jointly organized a townhall meeting on mental health on Thursday, 12th November 2015. This meeting on mental health was kick-started by the Director, Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, explaining the existing support structures in the institute and offering his viewpoint on several issues like MITr, professional counselling, etc., as captured in T5E’s recent Interview with the Director. After this, the DoSt and the MITr faculty advisor, Prof. Arul Jayachandran gave their remarks on the general functioning of Mitr.
This was followed by an insightful presentation by Dr. Sabeeha, a psychologist from the Medall team. Medall is the company to whom the institute has outsourced professional counselling services. Dr. Sabeeha talked to the audience about the symptoms of depression so that everybody present became aware and learnt to identify these signs in themselves and others. Drawing from her experience, she offered a few suggestions on how to improve mental health on campus – from compulsory emotional management courses to the creation of a wellness centre providing de-stressing activities and regular wellness screening for the student population.
The institute counsellors, also employees of Medall, presented a “client influx” data gathered over 3 years of their functioning on campus, starting from the 2012-13 academic year. These were the highlights of their presentation:
1. A total of 174 students availed in-person counselling from Medall over a span of three years, out of which 79 came back for another session.
2. While about 19 % of this population showed clinical depression and were referred to the hospital psychiatrist, the rest went through counselling sessions.
3. In decreasing order, these were the most prevalent problems – academic anxiety, emotional and relationship issues. The counsellors, however, added that while most students cite academic anxiety as the reason in the initial sessions, they trace it back to emotional or other issues on further discussion.
4. There is a steady decrease in the number of UG’s availing their service. It is the complete opposite case for PG’s – the numbers are increasing.
5. There is an overall decrease in the number of male students seeking counselling. On the other hand, female student numbers are rising. Also, the male: female ratio among students seeking counselling was much higher than the male: female ratio in the institute population.
6. There was a large jump in students seeking counselling this October. The counsellors predict that this is because of the mental health awareness and the green ribbon campaign that they had helped the MITR conduct.
There was some attempt by the counsellors to explain these trends but many in the audience felt that further solid reasoning would be needed to understand these patterns. In addition to the above numbers, Prof. Arul added that cases of 46 students were identified from the grassroots and either resolved or escalated to the psychiatrist by MITr, over the last two years.
After their presentation, the floor was opened for questions. With approximately hundred students present in the audience, a spectrum of questions were raised – from queries on MITr’s activities for higher year and PG students, mental health and professional counselling awareness on campus, need for lively common spaces in hostel to facilitating informal interaction, creating elected posts for MITr counsellors to promote accountability, improving student-guide relationship, faculty sensitization and regular compulsory counselling for everybody. There was also a proposal to introduce a wellness index, to survey the mental health state of the campus.
There was a mixed response to many of these ideas, but the DoSt, Prof. Sivakumar and the MITr Fac-Ad, Prof. Arul Jayachandran made meticulous notes of some of the suggestions put forth by students. The discussion was also enriched by the presence of Prof. LS Ganesh, former Dean of Students. Among the other attendees were Dean Planning Prof. David Koilpillai, CCW Prof. K Sethupathi and several hostel wardens. After nearly an hour and a half of discussions, the session formally drew to a close. But many students and faculty did stay back to discuss the pros and cons of suggestions raised during the meeting, indicating that the townhall had partially succeeded in its objective of creating a space for dialogue.
But as the proof lies in the pudding and not in the ingredients, the townhall’s real success will depend on the follow-up discussion and action on these recommendations by SAC, MITr and Medall, which they all promise to initiate.