After we published It is Always Darkest Just Before Dawn, we received many more articles from insti students, all of them moved by the author’s courage, wisdom, and generosity in opening up about his suffering and how he found his way out of it. We found many common themes in them, and thought we’ll put them together. What follows are their thoughts, collectively expressed.
Understanding the Problem
One student admitted that she was struggling with her mental health even before arriving here.
I was bullied recklessly in school - from primary till half of my high school - and the only way I wanted to forget it was to focus…on something bigger.
That “something bigger” was the JEE. Well, once they made it here:
I confess that just for the tiniest moment, I believed I was better.
They then found that the JEE had left them unprepared for life inside an IIT.
After joining this institute, where everything was painted rosy and happy on the outside, I was too dazed to even realise what was happening to me.
Some were unprepared for the academic struggle that was to follow.
Sometimes, you can work as hard as you possibly could and still not catch up to those 9 pointers. That is the harsh reality. Some people manage to stay in the race. Some don’t. The problem occurs when they begin to think that they’re at the end of the road.
But it’s not just about academic success and failure by itself. Again, the author of It’s Darkest Before Dawn diagnoses the problem well:
As far as the pressure in IIT is concerned, people might find it surprising that I disagree that it is too much. I think the issue that IITians have is that most of us have never seen failure before getting here. All of us are here after beating lakhs and lakhs of people in the most gruelling experiences of our lives and so we have never really seen failure. Hence, by default, we are not emotionally and mentally equipped to handle it. And immediately we’re in a surrounding where everyone is as awesome. Obviously it is going to take a lot more work than before to still be the best!
He goes on to say:
I also feel that much of the pressure is self-inflicted. As we see our friends doing better we question ourselves and what we’re doing with our lives and start putting a lot of pressure to do better. Maybe our families [also] expect us to do well, and that puts a lot pressure.
This tendency for comparing oneself with others extends to more than just academics.
So much to learn, so much to study. My seniors would tell us about all the competitions they participated in, about all the conferences they attended, the papers they published, the businesses they started. I would never be able to do all those things. And still, I tried. I tried hard, and found that while success was not all that elusive, it was never in my control.
Everyone around me was better than me at anything I had ever known in life. If I thought I was smart, I was constantly proven an ignorant idiot — not just by the teachers, but also by my classmates, my hostel mates even.
The former consultant psychiatrist at the Institute Hospital had pointed out these factors in an interview published on T5E, after a suicide in 2013.
The Struggle Within
This sudden feeling of inadequacy can lead to a questioning of one’s direction in life, leading to an identity crisis.
So I found myself, a confused somebody, trying incessantly to define myself to myself. I succeeded where I never thought myself capable, yet failed where I felt invincible. I fell in and out of love with myself, with life, with people; always changing, never satisfied, always falling short of something that would make my life good.
The inner struggle could not but manifest itself as a withdrawal and immense internal struggle can strain existing friendships.
When you are out of hope, you start withdrawing your trust, protecting it, never letting go. You are left friendless, without hope…I was once popular and suddenly, became a nobody. These new people were very different. I did not even have a language in common with most of them. The hardest thing was making new friends just to keep away the loneliness. I made friends, many of them, and I was always a good friend. And yet, I found out the hard way that some relationships are not meant to last.
And when everyone around you is hushing about it and when you realise that people are not going to be the same to you anymore when they come to know about you, depression only seems like a cruel punishment.
The feeling that you are supposed to have “made it” in life, that you have certain obligations to appear happy, can create an additional burden: guilt.
Nobody could understand what I was feeling - including me - since everybody thought that being in IIT, I need not worry about anything else. I could not open to anyone else, because everybody else was busy with their lives and too naïve to understand. I could not make new friends here either since nobody had the patience to befriend a girl who can’t put herself together.
A little kindness towards yourself and others can go a long way.
Little acts of kindness every day. If you are a student/parent/professional - inside or outside IIT - who knows someone dealing with mental illnesses, please be patient enough to lend your kindness and support to him/her.
Everyone needs, and deserves, some solace.
Trust is another such thing…If only, in our darkest times, we all had a little hope, we felt safe with our trust in someone, maybe we could all make it through.
It could be from one’s parents.
One fine day I could not continue any longer and [my] mother realised I needed professional help. Thanks to her unconditional love and support and her colleague who negotiated with me and gently pushed me to consult a psychiatrist, I am here alive, writing this article to you.
Or from one’s friends.
Friendship and courtesy are underrated. You never know how much you mean to the people who talk to you or how seriously they can take your words. One nice gesture can make their day. These are very little things but they all contribute. While it might seem foolish to think that being nice is all it takes to prevent suicides, we must understand that committing suicide is not something decided in the spur of the moment. It is a cumulative thing and it is usually the result of that person feeling all alone. It is the result of a person feeling that there is no hope left in the world. He only needs one person beside him to make him feel otherwise.
[It] need not be certified doctors or psychiatrists. Just needs to be a listening ear.
But then psychiatrists do help.
What people don’t realise is that, it is far easier to unburden to a random stranger, rather than a close friend…
All it takes is the courage to speak to a professional counsellor or psychiatrist. I marvel at how straightforward the path of recovery is! It is simple but definitely not easy.
How so? The student who wrote the earlier memoir, tells us of the time he consulted a psychiatrist
Most of the time it was me talking. We made notes and attacked the problem logically. We literally drew cause-effect diagrams and analysed the situation and the counsellor drew the solution from my mouth! After that, recovery was very simple. It was brilliant! I could feel the weight of the problems come down in my head, not because they were solved, but because I finally was able to look at them differently, more positively!
What a person can also do is to be more open.
If there is one thing I learned from my time in insti, it is that life does offer possibilities – chances, choices, alternatives; even though sometimes they might need a little looking for. There is no formula for happiness, nor is there any way to satisfy every need, want or person.
For all you know, others around you could be suffering too.
If only we could always remember that we are not alone in the world, to be, or to be feeling a certain way, we might just get through. If only we could try to look at someone and see them for everything they are and not just what we want them to be, we could be happier too. If only we opened up our minds just a little bit more, we could make life a whole lot better, could we not?
How much should the system help?
Now, in 2014, suicides took place at the rate of fifteen every hour in India. The students who wrote to us made that clear – mental illness and suicide aren’t problems only inside the IITs.
But how sensible and accommodating are we even outside the campus? For god’s sake, IIT is not a concentration camp.
The reference was to this absurd blog post that appeared in the Times of India. The author of It is Always Darkest Just Before Dawn, alarmed by some of the reactions to the suicides in the media, wrote to us again.
Every time a suicide happens at IIT, everyone gets outraged! The media has a field day. At times like this, it absolutely does not help when even the students themselves start screaming on social media saying “What is the management doing? Why aren’t they stopping this?”
We’ll give the last word to this student whose article inspired and encouraged others to write to us…
I am not saying that the management is perfect and that they are doing everything right, but…let the initiative be from our side. If we try really hard, will the management stop us? I doubt it.
The solution then is to figure out when some people are at risk of getting overwhelmed by all the expectation and pressure and find a way for them to seek professional help and figure out that things are not as hard as they seem. Or even better prevent anyone from getting to that stage by equipping students to handle that kind of pressure beforehand!
Instead of wrapping [opinions] in an FB post that criticizes the system or management, I urge all the students who are outraged to bring up those magnificent points and observations to the management and try to work with them to help prevent future incidents of suicides/ suicide attempts. To tell people that suicide is not an option and that the solution is right around the corner, if only people open up. In that view I think the formation of a new sub- committee under SAC is a positive step. I hope that can help catalyse the change.
It’s not cowardice to endure suffering.
What may seem trivial to us may have been a life-altering reason for someone else…Depressed people are not weak; they are the strongest since waking up every morning and staying alive is a big decision to make.
And the struggle can lead you to the realization that there’s more to life than “success”.
People need to understand that doing the worst in college is not equivalent to ‘losing in life’. Grades are overrated. The value of money is overrated. Sure, money is the priority for most people who come to IIT. But that turns into money being the only priority and that leads to a do or die situation just for the sake of money. This, added with the pride of not letting people know that they are indeed suffering is what leads their minds into depression. Nothing can uniquely define the world around us. Not our grades, not our money, not our looks.
We thank our contributors for sharing their stories with us. We also met with our Director, Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, to further understand administration’s perspective on the many issues that were raised in the debate sparked off by the recent suicides. We’ll publishing it in several parts starting tomorrow.