As usual it was the maid who brought me the neighborhood news.
'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.
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.

Why is there such a high level of depression among young people?
The same article has this answer:
It’s a problem of plenty, say psychologists.

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.

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.
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?
32 Responses
  1. Great post ! this has bothered me for a long time too.

    The difference between when i was a student and now, is that today, someone arbitrarily decides the end result, and life, for a child, is supposed to fall in line. And so there are pressures of acceptances in institutions with reputations and names. Add that to keeping up with the Joneses children.

    In our time, there were rules of life,family interaction, trust, and hard work, and you were pleased to accept the outcome. But you had by then learned the art of working hard. A lot of our values came about because we imbibe from a lot of immediate and extened family, how to care .

    Televison programs, that show so called modern youth interacting in shows where beepable content exceeds audible content, also highlight the wrong path.

    I dont really know the solution, but I sometimes wonder if we need to go back to some of the no nonsense old ways....

  2. Vijay Says:

    They must be encouraged to give their best but must not be punished for not being the brightest

    Great the father of a 17 year old whos toiling for his PUC exams..I say touche!!!

  3. Garima Says:

    Usha, I agree the source of the problem is not from one place.
    It might be the parents, who know that if the kid does not fair well, the options get very limited. It might be the school, which wants to have the paper artcile saying : 80% of students over A+ grade. It might be with the kids, who want to excel, knowing if they dont, there is not much options left.
    In addition to all this is- School system. The 'better' schools have the highest cut off and highest 'donation' and the calibre of second best schools is just not good. Quality of education if was uniform, or at least there were more seats than number of students, good facilities, there would be ample places for kids to get placed in. It's like the saying: "I didnt get into Harvard, but I got in Berkley" Both are brilliant schools, one being better. But the students had enough placements to choose.
    Just reducing the 'board pressure' is not good enough. There needs to be more of eevrything. A huge overhaul from education system.. and then, a huge over haul of parents "Mera beta engineer banega" is not going to cut anymore!

  4. Great post as always!

    My mom always said how despite not having enough to eat and enough to wear and limited or no display of love from parents who were always busy in providing, they were always happy.

  5. Art Says:

    anytime.. there are results.. we get to see such news... most of the times its those kids... who have been given the comforts of life... the ones who dont have.. know... that life is beyond board exams

  6. dr.antony Says:

    The reasons behind a teen's suicide or attempted suicide can be complex. Although suicide is relatively rare among children, the rate of suicides and suicide attempts increases tremendously during adolescence. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surpassed only by accidents and homicide.

    Suicide rates differ between boys and girls. Girls think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys, and tend to attempt suicide by overdosing on drugs or cutting themselves. Yet boys die by suicide about four times as often girls.
    A teen with an adequate support network of friends, family, religious affiliations, peer groups, or extracurricular activities may have an outlet to deal with everyday frustrations. But many teens don't believe they have that, and feel disconnected and isolated from family and friends. These teens are at increased risk for suicide.

    Depression and substance abuse are important reasons. Just today I watched on TV, about a young girl who committed suicide.She was cheated by her lover.
    It is difficult to think about solutions.There are always newer reasons.Teaching children on the values in life, and giving the freedom to come home and vent out problems, are the key solutions.

  7. starry eyed Says:

    It's very complex, and the fear of every parent, trying to walk the thin line between motivating their kids, and not pressurising them. I think that what you said in the middle, is what makes sense...that false sense of entitlement, the instant gratification, high-speed everything, an overdose of entertainment and luxuries...make kids the splitting up of families puts a lot of pressure on parents, and they have no support, the kids have no other adult to turn need to lead the value of struggle and waiting and hard, hard work...and to be comfortable with failure and mistakes. Some thoughts on that, in this post

    And I's too easy to blame the parents and feel superior...its a complex issue, but ultimately the solution also lies with parents :( More pressure on us.

  8. R's Mom Says:

    Awesome post as are right..I think we are making too big a deal with the boards...its scary, its sad and ultimately it just leads to unhappiness...yes to be good in academics is great but honestly after having work ex for over 6 years all I can say is I am not even using 1% of what I have studied especially of my engineering does it make sense at all to pressurize students..I think you put it brilliantly 'They must be encouraged to give their best but must not be punished for not being the brightest'

  9. Its so sad... And to think that student life is acknowledged to be one of the best times in your life... sigh. poor girl. God give her parents strength to cope and go on living their lives. Do they have another child? :-(

  10. Usha Says:

    Suranga:I agree, agree, so agree!

    Vijay:Wish him the very best from me too. :)

    Garima: That thing about the schools expelling children who score less than a certain percentage is atrocious. Parents should take the schools to court for it.
    You are right, we need more schools, more good schools that can accommodate more children.

    SnS:Thank you. True, we were happy with very little. I think we simply looked for some reason to be happy while most kids today seem to be looking for reasons to be unhappy.

    Art:So sad no Art?

    Dr.Antony: Interesting observations. May be we should have routine psychological check-up too like physical and dental?

    Starry:Very complex and the job comes with no handbooks and in any case every child is unique even if it is from the same parents. Tough job. Society played an important role too in those days. There were caring schools, involved teachers, the child was more important than the marks he/she got,there was room for everyone whether they got 60 or 90. Today competition is stiff, everyone wants the same thing and it is that or nothing. It isn't easy for them, poor kids.

    R'smom:And best of all today's children have access to information at their finger tips. They do not have to memorize it all. Perhaps we should move towards open book examinations and project based assessments rather than making them memorize facts and figures.

    JLT:Their life as students isnt so joyful after the 8th standard - very tough for them.
    Yes, they have another child and I worry about the psychological impact of this incident on that poor child too.


  11. Suresh S Says:

    Very good and a timely post.

    The reasons are definitely complicated and it is ofcourse easy to blame the parents. But whether we like it or not, our society seems to value education a lot. Just the other day I was talking to a friend and telling him that no other achievement brings a brighter glow on the parent's face than their children standing first in class!! And children are perceptive enough to understand that. They know that their parents are judging them by their academic performance. The schools also treat the less brighter students as well as their parents almost as if they are second class citizens. Lot needs to change.

  12. Uma Says:

    Besides the 'false sense of entitlement' I also feel that our way of measuring success is sort of unidimensional. It almost always considers academic excellence as a key parameter. That has to change... well, among many other things that have to change...

  13. ~*sim*~ Says:

    usha, this is so on-point and yet so diverse in all the issues it brings to the forefront.

    have you heard of a very controversial book that's recently come out in the U.S. entitled "battle hymn of the tiger mother"? it's written by a chinese-american yale law school prof who brought up her daughters with the strictest of discipline; many might even say too much so. no sleepovers, no parties, no school plays, no sports teams -- only schoolwork, and musical instrument practice, for many hours a day, even on weekends and during holidays. also, some amount of verbal abuse (e.g., saying they are worthless) -- just as you experienced as a kid -- and she says that this is the "chinese" way of bringing up kids which is BETTER than the american way because there are no false promises of "everyone is a winner" or entitling the kids to more than they "deserve" in the real world. today in the U.S., parenting strategies for privileged white parents are quite different: i just recently had a conversation with a friend who has a 1-year-old kid and she says that many of her daughter's playmates' parents think it's a bad thing to even say no to their kids! can you imagine an upbringing like that working out in india or china?

    the problem with the indian system is that there is too much pressure to perform well in school because that is the way to distinguish oneself from the (literally) lakhs of other students who are also in the same rat race. therefore on the one hand there is the fear that if parents don't put pressure on their kids then the kids will not perform, and will slack off and not make anything of their lives; on the other hand, with too much pressure, the kids turn out to be badly-developed, overly competitive (especially, ironically, the highest performers, as you mention) and stressed out to the point of suicide.

    i was one of the brighter kids in my class and my parents still questioned me if i got "only" a 97% -- but i never once thought i should end my life because of academic performance. maybe the public attention given to successful suicides -- even with the requisite newspaper paragraph from some child psychologist who says youth should not attempt to kill themselves over marks -- is convincing more and more kids to try it? very sad.

  14. You know what, the crux of the whole thing is that people consider life a huge race. There is a mad rush to reach some vague thoughtless destination, there being more emphasis on the mechanics of the race, rather than someone stopping and thinking if one's destination could be something else. Those mindlessly running bring up mentally traumatised kids.

    And you never know what traumatizes. In the area/community where I live, the so called formal educational qualification per sq foot (if you look at it that way) is huge, say, a doctorate etc. I know someone whose wonderful child got a four digit rank in the JEE, was offered admission in the campus of his choice , but a different branch of study. They refused the offer, he went on to study somewhere else, the entire family was in actual mourning, because they expected his rank to be in early 3 digits.
    Perfect recipe for disaster.

  15. diya Says:

    Really, Usha, this is, or rather should be, a prime concern for parents of our generation. I too find that the more my Brat gets the more the wants and more urgently. While the younger one is more adjusting and can share, she jealously guards her stuff and I foresee a difficult adolescence for her, for she is very touchy and emotional. We have to delve into the reasons for this, but more importantly we have to find a way out for the sake of our children. In Calcutta, an 11 year old boy committed suicide after being caned by a teacher in a reputed school. Now, remember boys being caned regularlyin my brother's school, but now a days, after the banning of caning etc children perhaps cannot cope with any kind of reprimand. I think parents should also receive counselling on these matters, if the growth of such suicides have to be stopped.

  16. Jane Turley Says:

    It is so terribly, terribly sad when young people do these things. Children are so vunerable in those teenage years, particularly those who stand out from the crowd either academically, socially or otherwise.
    In the UK we have a lot of problems with bullying - which seems to be on the rise which access to the net and mobile phones.
    I am a strong believer that sport, which is so overlooked in our schools, is very good even for those who aren't "sporty" as such as it teaches discipline, team spirit, how to deal with losses etc etc. But these days most kids are huddled in front of their PCs and mobiles...

    Suicide is a complex problem but I am not surprised that many deaths result of sheer frustration - in a way these are the saddest - a momentary act of madness. There are others who perhaps have a degree of mental illness and perhaps have always been set on that path... I know of someone who attempted to take her own life several times without success for various reasons and then just when it seemed she was at her happiness, engaged to be married etc..she killed herself. No one could understand why. Perhaps, as you suggest, afraid of never being happy enough? I'm not sure where the balance lies between frustation and illness...

    It's a tough life for our children, despite the fact that they have so much more then we did-maybe that is the very heart of the matter. In years past it was a fight for survival - now it's a fight to be the best. Silly shows like Xfactor, although entertaing for viewers, show how deluded some children and parents are about their abilities.

    What a huge topic, I think I could witter on for ages but I think I've said enough for now:)

    A wonderful, thought provoking post Usha. Good to see you back in action:)

  17. WhatsInAName Says:

    Hi Usha!
    its so awful! And like you said, its probably nothing to do with parental pressure. Should we blame the education system? Or the competition in india? Or peer pressure? Can't find an answer but as a mother of a 17 year old board-appearing engineering-aspiring daughter, I can vouch that I myself get depressed at times looking at the way my poor child is dealing with so much of pressure. Life is not easy in india.

  18. Sangitha Says:

    I know this mom - we grew up together. I have seen her in her home with her kids - she is patient, a friendly parent. The father is involved and they had music and fun and laughter in their lives. I was stunned to see this happen - they did everything 'right', the way they were told to do it, including treatment for depression. Depression is a disease, much like cancer, except because we don't see a tangible tumour, we don't give the importance it requires. And I am glad it is finally being given more say it didn't happen when we were growing up just means to me that those people who did commit suicide because they 'couldn't deal' were not getting help. And all we said was that it was a cowardly way and gave next to no support except some amateurish 'counseling' which was advice with a different name.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    I was reading this book titled Mastery and the author describes the today's world as a series of climax and we dont know how to enjoy the process of doing something. Its the end that is in focus always - study so that you get a first rank, get a first rank so that you can get the best job, get the best job so that you have money, have enough money so that you can buy all that you want and it goes on. As a society we need to change our approach and once we enjoy the process that leads to Mastery, may be ( a big may be) these incidents will come down.

  20. Cuckoo Says:

    In today's world, the pressure is to be the best in everything. Frankly, there are too many rats in the rat race, but as a mom, even I am guilty of encouraging my toddler to prepare himself for the 'rat race'. Somehow the society is not yet open to alternate careers (though it is becoming better now) and there aren't enough 'good' colleges. The peer group and teachers encourage children to become engineers and doctors and not to be happy with 'trying their best'.

  21. Somashekhar Says:

    As planning for the first child. I am really now understanding the diffculties of raising the child, which was done well by parents. even though i have not apprieciated about it during my childhood but now understanding the difficulty of it.Now getting perpared for it, but still have lot of dilemmas of do and don't as the father.I hear many times by many parents saying "i want to give every best of the world to my child when he grows". but sometimes i feel, is it really necessary to give every best of world to the child? is child deserve every best just because he is my child ? what all the factors has to kept in mind while giving facilties to the child? what need to or need not to be given to child to make him a good citizen of the society?
    Hope that strength comes in me to grow my child better.

  22. Great Post.

    I think the one thing that has changed is the amount of competition and pressure, even if the parents avoid pressurizing the kids, the school, media, peer group - basically the rest of the world doesn't.

    Depression is also a serious issue, but little understood.

  23. Sue Says:

    What bothers me me is that all these measures that schools seem to be taking to reduce the stress seem to have two undesirable results:

    1. The onus of the actual learning is pushed more and more on to the parents as schools have shorter periods with even more varied syllabi (to make learning fun, they tell me).

    2. The fundamentals seem to be getting weaker. If a child has neither a carrot nor a stick to urge her to learn something for the long-term, why should she? And then we end up with high school students who cannot string a grammatically correct sentence together or add simple two digit numbers in their heads.

    Anyway. I'm glad I'm not a schoolgirl any more. :)

    Came here to tag you: I think that I, personally, can no longer say that the smack was purely disciplinary is when I hit to hurt, not to teach. And that's when I know that I'm out of control, not the boy.

    Didn't want to comment on this one, too much I don't want to say. On a happier note, you're tagged:

  24. Very True.. Children are over stressed these days to the point that they can't handle it!

  25. Anonymous Says:

    Dear Usha,

    Miss your writing (and I check regularly hoping for updates). I realize that you are writing more often on your Tamil blog, but unfortunately I can't read Tamil:( Hope you are well and will start writing here again. Take care.

    - Deb

  26. Renu Says:

    There are mutliple reasons for this..need of instant gratification, busy parents, cut throat competition and a life of materialism.

  27. I've seen such cases myself, and on a lot of occassions too. It's a bit sad to think that a life, so full of hopes and ambitions and dreams, can be ended due to such trivial reasons...

  28. Anonymous Says:

    Mam...What happened? Is everythign OK? why not blogging at all?? Pls coem back soon !!!

  29. Anonymous Says:

    Usha , please come back to blogging ! please !

  30. Where are you??? :(

  31. Anonymous Says:

    We are still waiting for your comeback!

  32. Virender Says:

    excellent post !!! thanks for sharing with us !!!