Exam pressure fuels spike in student suicides in coaching hub Kota

Thursday, 28 September 2023 (11:44 IST)
Every morning, Shakib Khan (not his real name) wakes from a recurring nightmare of failure. He experiences constant anxiety and fear.
The 20-year-old hopes to get a place in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), one of India's most prestigious colleges. His parents have long wanted him to become a successful engineer.
Three years ago, Shakib moved from Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, to Kota, a hub of private coaching institutes in the northern state of Rajasthan catering to youngsters hoping for entrance into some of the country's most prestigious medical and engineering colleges.
Shakib's parents had to borrow money from relatives to help pay for his private coaching in Kota.
Why are student suicides increasing?
Shakib remembers the tough days and sleepless nights after his first failed attempt to enter ITT. His low morale led to him even considering putting an end to his life — but with regular medication, he began to cope a bit better.
He is now getting ready for a second attempt at securing a place at ITT, and once again he is feeling an immense amount of pressure to pass the entrance exams.
"There is no emotional support during the moments when you feel low. I used to cry for days and nights," Shakib told DW.
"There is immense pressure and expectations from parents to perform and that kills you from within. Sometimes you cannot take it any longer and you break down."
The city of Kota is seeing a distressing trend as students struggle with the overwhelming pressure, fierce competition and a lack of support for those who feel the psychological impact from the fear of failure.
At least 23 students have committed suicide so far this year — two on the same day last month.
Suicide prevention
To prevent further suicides, Rajasthan police formed a special team of 11 officers to establish a student unit headed by Chandrasil Thakur, a senior police officer.
He and his team visit hostels and coaching centers looking to help students who may be vulnerable.
"We have stopped and prevented many cases where students have locked their doors. We immediately go to their hostels, inform their parents and initiate counselling sessions," Thakur told DW.
The team has also opened a helpline where students can reach out and talk to people.
Everyday, they receive at least 10 calls from distressed students with mental health issues.
Many coaching centers have introduced engaging and relaxing activities such as yoga classes and music festivals in an attempt to address the mental health crisis.
Teachers, hostel owners and doctors also play an important role in helping students who are feeling distressed.
Deadly pressure
India has one of the world's highest youth suicide rates. One student took their own life every 42 minutes in 2020, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). In the same year, 11,396 suicides of students below the age of 18 were reported across all of India.  
Dr. Vinod Dariya, a professor in Kota Medical College's psychiatry department, is worried about the lack of trained councilors in coaching institutes. He has noticed that students tend to suffer from peer and parental pressure.
"A large number of students come from low-income families, with the burden of parental expectations that they will become doctors or engineers. This weighs heavily on them and takes a toll on their mental health," Dr. Dariya said.
At his hospital, he regularly meets students who suffer from acute stress and depression.
"I see dozens of students every day and among them 4% are diagnosed with depression," he added. "And the sad part is that due to lack of mental health awareness some do not take it seriously. There are few cases where students need serious help from psychiatrists."
Worried parents move to Kota
Due to the recent spate of student suicides in Kota, many concerned parents have moved to the northern Indian city to provide support for their children.
But Shakib's mother, Shah Jahan Khan, and many other parents, simply cannot afford to move to Kota.
Shah Jahan Khan is concerned for her son amid the recent spate of suicide cases, and calls Shakib up to five times a day to check up on him.
"There is a strange and constant fear in my head," she told DW. "I keep telling him to give his best performance and not to worry about results."

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