India houses the world’s second largest population, a majority of whom live in villages, with  30% below the poverty line. In a nation where the competition is so high, a good education is one of the primary means to transcend socio economic conditions and open boundaries to new livelihoods. Parents who understand this invest in their children’s education, and this comes with high expectations and a lot of pressure.

Board exams in India take place as the summer heat kicks in every year, for ten million students in grade ten and twelve. They are a tedious, high pressure, much talked about affair. Students spend months, or sometimes the entire school year, often abandoning extra curricular activities and hobbies to master these exams and get the right scores. Board exams decide which subject a student can study in high school, college and university. They are seen as a ‘make or break’ examination for life, and at school, a measure of a student’s worth. Certain boards of education in India are now conducting these exams at earlier school years such as classes five and eight.

Over the past weeks, as board exam results for grade ten and twelve were announced in India, a spate of student suicides followed.

Three in Delhi, two of whom had passed the exams, but were unhappy with their scores. Eight students took their lives in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and three in Orissa. The numbers keep adding up. The thought of fourteen to seventeen year olds taking their lives due to bad academic performance reflects a failure of parenting, teaching and society.

Under Pressure

Apart from internal and societal pressure, parents, teachers and peers also play a role in the tension that leads up to, and often follows the board exams. Doctors in India have noticed increasing accounts of hypertension in young adults, especially around board exam season.

Parents who don’t want their kids to get left behind resort to sending them to multiple tutors, and comparing their academic performances with other students – in the hope that they will score enough to enter top universities and eventually, find well paying jobs. Often, they have no warning signs or idea that something is wrong with their child or at school until it is too late. For a country where a student takes their life every one hour, India’s mental health workforce is understaffed and underqualified.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare shared that the country needs 13,500 psychiatrists, but has just over 3,500. The entire workforce, including clinical psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric social workers and psychiatric nurses stands at 7,000, while the actual requirement is 54,750. India currently spends only 0.06 per cent of its health budget on mental health, a percentage lower than countries like Bangladesh.

Confidence Killers, Subtle Triggers

"You're an iyer (upper caste hindu) and you're so bad at maths! How? Wondered my ninth grade maths teacher. Casteism is alive and kicking in India, it appears. My brother’s French teacher claimed it would be very hard for him to pass French in the boards. Instead, he topped it, thanks to a private tutor of course”. recalls Pradipti Jayaram, a journalist and researcher based in Kochi, Kerala.

The effect of humiliating jibes and pressure from teachers is often a subtle trigger or catalyst towards graver actions. Teacher’s roles are to educate and prepare us for the world as confident, capable adults. While healthy hazing may work as an exception, jibes and corporal punishment can kill a student’s interest and confidence, academic or otherwise.

How can we support our students better?

This year, the CBSE exam helpline for ‘stressed out students’ counselled around 5000 callers, including students in urban and rural areas, as well as over 300 parents.  Indian comedy groups like All India Bakchod and online publications such as The Quint have urged followers to post their experiences of board examinations, especially when they performed badly, as examples to Indian students that it isn’t the end of the world.

Seeing such stories show students that exams aren’t the only factor that decide their future successes and failures.

How to spot signs of stress early

As parents, keeping tabs on your child’s life at school and state of mind may be the best way to support them.

  • Talk to your children to understand their challenges. Your support, especially to make sure they have someone to talk to, a healthy diet, and sound sleep at this stressful time can make all the difference.

  • Mental health professionals advice starting conversations if you see signs such as your son or daughter losing interest once pleasurable activities, erratic eating and sleeping patterns, and withdrawal from family and friends.

  • Even dizzy spells and being out of breath can be symptoms of something underlying.

  • Websites and apps like Innerhour, YourDOST and Trust Circle are paving new paths in taking the mental wellbeing conversation online and removing the taboos associated with them. The apps connect patients to licensed therapists, psychologists and support groups, also offering free assessments to understand what a patient is going through.

  • Adolescents also need to understand that their academic performance isn’t all that matters and that nothing is worth resorting to extreme measures such as self-harm.

Educating children about opportunities in life beyond school and college can broaden their perspective on life and learning. Creating and connecting your child to resources in your community who can add to this perspective will make a difference. Remember that encouraging them to work hard on what they love and want to achieve, and supporting that goal creatively is more likely to help them become happy, skilled, and confident adults.

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