'Amma, a fifteen year girl jumped off the 7th floor in that apartment complex at the end of our road. She died yesterday."
It took a while for the news to sink in my mind.
'What could possibly be so difficult in the life of a fifteen year old living in a posh apartment complex? Surely it must have been an accident. '
I checked the day's newspaper and there it was "15 year old ends life over exam stress.'
Giving up life over a mere board exam?
I have heard that suicide rate among youngsters peaks around the time of exams and examination results. But it didn't seem real even then.
This was probably a girl who I had seen on my street walking or cycling back from school or waiting for their school bus. Some of them walk their dogs and stop to talk to my Munni and Zoozoo. They all look so lovely . There are times I envy their life - so much to look forward to with the licence of youth to make mistakes and learn, so many opportunities to seize and avenues to explore. A whole life ahead of them.
And one of them actually did this? it is too bizarre to believe.
Initially I blamed the parents. It is always easy to blame people you do not know. May be it was too much parental pressure - all these tiger parents and helicopter parents trying to compensate for their lack of achievements through their children. It is almost like they brought these children into the world as extra limbs to achieve their unfulfilled ambitions. And then the shock. I knew the mother. I have seen her walking their dog and would always stop at my gate to exchange pleasantries and some small talk. A very nice, level headed person who is not the type to burden her kids with her unrealistic expectations.
So where did the stress come from? School? peers? self-inflicted?
Do schools have programs to help children face their board exams without tension- motivational lectures, meditation or even psychological counseling.? Apparently many of them do.
I was talking to a school teacher this morning and she said that ironically it is not the kids who fail that go to these drastic measures but bright kids who fear that they will not make it to the top ranks. She spoke about one of her ex-students who had appeared for the medical entrance exam and was disappointed with her performance. She asked her parents if they would pay capitation fees and get her admission. The mother said that if she didn't get through this year she could always prepare well and get in next year but they could not afford to pay capitation. The girl took her life by hanging and when the results came out she had actually made to the list. And the mother is still blaming herself for her daughter's decision - 'I drove her to her death' she cries.
I do not know the facts about this particular kid from my locality - it could have been a combination of fear, anxiety and depression. But I cannot bear to see the face of her parents anymore - a vacant uncomprehending look as though they are aliens struggling in a strange planet they don't understand. Are they asking themselves why they deserved this or where they went wrong?
This is the fate of parents worldwide. They intend to give their very best to their kids but are never sure what they did is enough or right.
Don't these kids appreciate how much their parents go through to keep them healthy, safe and comfortable? Or do they just think these are just the basics of the job description of parents? Today's children may be much smarter than the earlier generation but they seem a lot more focused on themselves than anyone else. This despite the fact that most families have just one or two kids and hence they get a lot of attention from the adults on both sides of the family. Parents are willing to spend a lot more on their dresses,gifts, birthdays and toys. Has all this attention made them more needy?
I don't remember my parents or those of my friends fussing excessively over us. we were scolded when we misbehaved. They said things like "it would have been better to have nurtured a tree than a useless child like you". When we did not perform well in subjects, our teacher said 'you are only fit to herd buffaloes.' We felt bad about these things but we also knew that they cared for us and said such things only to make us do better. And we were not even as smart and perceptive as today's kids. We just acknowledged the right of our parents and teachers to be cross with us when we did not perform to our potential. We appreciated all the things they did for us the rest of the time and realised that someone who cared for you so much had the right to be upset with you. We never doubted that they cared about us despite the fact that parents those days never expressed how much they loved us.
Today there is a lot more of display and expression of love and lavishing of attention and yet, children feel unloved and unworthy.
An article that appeared in India Today in April 2008 on Teen Suicides has the following figures which are scary:
Every 90 minutes a teenager tries to commit suicide in India. Many of these attempts are half-hearted cries for attention, help and love. But every six hours, one succeeds.Why is there such a high level of depression among young people?
More adolescents die of suicide than AIDS, cancer, heart disease, obesity, birth defects and lung disease. In 2006-07 5,857 students took their own life, which works out to a stunning 16 suicides a day, says the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
While the global teen suicide rate is 14.5 per 100,000, a 2004 study by the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, reported 148 for girls and 58 for boys in India.
If globally, suicide is the fourth leading cause of teen deaths, in India it is at number one in some pockets and is the third largest killer all across. Over 150 students ended their lives across the country last month.
The same article has this answer:
It’s a problem of plenty, say psychologists.Perhaps scrapping of board exams for class X and the new grading system in place of marks will ease the pressure on these children to some extent.
Recent studies show that children who have been given too much too soon grow up to be adults who have difficulty coping with life’s disappointments.
“They have a distorted sense of entitlement that gets in the way of success both in the workplace and in relationships,” says Dr G. Gururaj, head, department of epidemiology at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMHANS) in Bangalore.
“They often grow up to be selfcentred and self-absorbed, and those are mental-health risks.” India’s economic success story has resulted in escalating aspirations.
“Young people feel they can achieve anything and want instant gratification. When they don’t get it, they become impatient and frustrated,” holds Gururaj. A suicide survey which he conducted in 2004 found that 57 per cent of youth suicides were sudden acts of frustration.
Parents must begin by not taking these board exams too seriously. I have known so many families that go into a year of austerity when one of their children is in the board exam class. No cable, reduced television viewing, less outings, restricted visiting hours, stop all extra curricular activities blah blah. Come on, it is just a board exam. Do not send the wrong signals to your children.
OK I hear you: There is indeed a lot of competition for the few good institutions and opportunities reduce as you go down the grade pyramid. But you cannot make your child feel less if he/she is not the brightest academically. They must be encouraged to give their best but must not be punished for not being the brightest. Today there are many opportunities for people with a basic degree to enroll for specific trainings and qualify for jobs. We need to give them the encouragement and soft skills to feel confident.
The important thing is to help children withstand these pressures. And to make them understand that their life is far more precious than anything else.
Lack of alternatives or choices is perhaps a major reason for people to despair and take such drastic measures. They feel they have failed and see no other door open.It would probably help if they can be given choices in terms of what they can do. Those interested in sports and arts can be encouraged to develop their talents in these areas. Actually it is such people who end up in professions that give them satisfaction and hence lead a happy life.
It is easy to analyze, pontificate and prescribe. Every parent means to do their best by their children and yet such things happen year after year.
Finally it all boils down to making our children stronger to face the pressures of life. How? What is it that our parents and grand parents were able to do that we seem to have missed?