Frequent suicides in the institute over the last academic year were unprecedented and alarming and highlighted a mental health emergency that urgently needs to be addressed. With help from the wellness community centre, the student body and seeking expert advertising, the administration launched various initiatives to address this crisis head-on.
“We are always here to help. We want to let everyone know that we are there for you.”
This was the concluding part of the mail sent by the wellness community centre in response to the mental health crisis happening in the institute. The tragic losses of our students over the last few months remind us of the urgent need to confront the mental health crisis on our campus and take meaningful action to prevent further tragedies.
Mental health crisis and admin response
IIT Madras has always been in the limelight among educational institutions and has accredited national and international recognitions. However, behind this façade of success lies a growing and alarming issue: a mental health crisis silently gripping our institute. Especially after the pandemic, mental health challenges among students have reached an unprecedented rate, and often students find it difficult to socialise with others. And the stigma around viewing mental health crises as not a real problem made the situation worse.
With the tragic incident of two suicide attempts in a day on Feb 13th, the gravity of the mental health crisis was revealed. Concern about the emergency created an unsettled atmosphere among the students. But many came forward to discuss the issue and support the students. A town hall meeting was scheduled with the Executive Council members, and an open house was planned with the director and admin section to bring issues to their notice and address measures to address students’ mental health on campus. An open house section was conducted with the wellness community centre before this, and all the suggestions and questions discussed were also presented at the town hall meeting.
But unfortunately, we were to witness more such painful incidents and were vulnerable toat the alarming situation. The director invited NIMHANS to study the mental health issues faced by the students. An Internal Enquiry Committee (IEC) was formed with student representatives for a transparent investigation of the suicide of a fellow student. Under the National Health Mission, the Government of Tamil Nadu and Kauvery Hospital, a facility was created to enable reaching out to Counsellors for wellness/mental health support for IITM Students/Staff/Faculty.
Under Project Khushi, Kauvery Hospital conducted a gatekeeper training program with the support of the IITM wellness centre. The program aims to train a person to identify another person at risk of suicide and refer them to treatment or support services as appropriate. Students, teachers and staff members were invited to participate. Additionally, an exhaustive mental health survey was conducted under the aegis of the National Health Mission (NHM), Govt of Tamil Nadu. The survey process involves a one-on-one conversation with a well-qualified wellness specialist assigned by NHM at the hostel premises for the students and departments/offices for others as appropriate. Third-party counselling was arranged with Kauvery Hospital, who continuously visited the hostels and departments at fixed times.
To make changes in the stressful environment, https://behappy.iitm.ac.in website was introduced. Regular and timely interaction with faculty advisors was encouraged through Kushal meetings to improve student mental health and self-motivation. Many faculty and alumni came forward to be listeners so students could share their concerns without fearing judgement. The details of structured time-bound grievance redressal were provided to enable various individuals responsible for grievance redressal to act upon their grievances for resolution and update the resolution status to the following hierarchy. It was decided to include more life skill courses in the curriculum.
A few of the IITM alumni came forward to form an independent student wellness centre to enquire about and identify students’ problems through consecutive surveys and facilitate solutions.
Nurturing mental health
Prioritising mental health among students is crucial for their overall well-being and personal growth. And wellness community centres are essential as the central hub dedicated to nurturing students’ mental health and well-being by offering accessible mental health services, educational programs, peer support networks, and holistic wellness initiatives. The Wellness Community Centre, IIT Madras, vouches for the holistic well-being of the student community. Proactive, retroactive, professional, and career guidance facilities are provided in different forms to ensure student empowerment.
Saathi is a proactive platform for the self-growth and well-being of students. The Saathi team focuses on prudent measures that raise awareness on the campus about various pertinent issues and plan several informal gatherings, lectures, and sessions.
Saathi organises four self-development programs yearly, including a student mentorship cell, acad buddy, a hobby buddy and an immersion program. As a proactive team, Saathi collaborates with other student bodies to reach out to every student. The team also works with your dost, a 24*7 online counselling and emotional support platform designed to foster mental health.
MiTr is a reactive body composed of faculties and students who provides peer counselling to distressed students and collaborate among different agencies in the IITM community. All the departments and hostels contain miTr representatives who have finished barefoot counselling training.
MiTr reaches out to the needed students in three ways- directly contacting MiTr coordinators, MiTr representatives observing their peer group to find distressed students and friends or other acquaintances of students struggling with their mental health approaching MiTr.
A separate counselling and research wing has been created in MiTr this year to cater to the specific needs. MiTr also cooperates with secretaries, hostel general secretaries, and department legislators to reach out to more students. Apart from being a reactive body, MiTr also conducted a 6-day campus drive to create a platform and destigmatize mental health discussions.
Wellness Centre, IITM, is a body of licensed mental health professionals, including a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist and counsellors, who work to nourish positive mental health on the campus. The team provides counselling and psychotherapy to the students. The wellness centre is also working towards destigmatising mental health crises, as many people do not consider them a real issue. All the sessions are conducted non-judgemental and kept confidential unless it threatens the student, others, or society.
They provide barefoot training to the Mitr Coordinators and coordinate with other teams in the wellness community centre. They organise talks, conduct group therapy and orientation sessions. The wellness centre arranged a CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) training session to allow those involved with the incident to overcome the emotional challenge associated with the crisis event. They also coordinated with MiTr to set up stalls during Saarang and Shastra.
Hey, how are you doing?
“Withdrawing from socialising is a symptom of depression. Most suicidal thoughts can be avoided when your close one asks how you are doing. Depression can be for different reasons, even biological reasons. We want to let everyone know that we are there. But don’t be hesitant in accepting the help.”
Tackling mental health issues is a long-term process. Even though the wellness community centre and student bodies are working towards students’ mental well-being, they often need help to reach every student. There is a need for increased peer-to-peer interaction. Reaching out to your classmates who you seem distressed may save lives.
“People feeling loneliness is a symbol of depression. Talk to your friends and parents, join your interested clubs and interact with more people.”
Mental health is not an isolated issue but an integral part of student well-being. And what we need and trying to develop is an environment where students feel supported, heard, and empowered to seek help when needed. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, please remember that help is available. Contact wellness centres, friends, faculties, helplines, or trusted individuals in your support network. Together, we can ensure that no more students feel alone in their battle against mental illness.
Edited by Aditi Rathore