Depression to discrimination, life-taking evils roam IIT, say former students

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As the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) campus roils in a raging controversy after the suicide of a first-year humanities student, Onmanorama caught up with former students to shed light on the maladies affecting the premier higher education institutes of the country. Fatima Latheef, aged 19, was found hanging in her hostel room on November 9. At least 52 IIT students have committed suicide in the last 10 years, RTI documents showed.

Biyas Muhammed
Biyas Muhammed, Kayamkulam from Integrated MA in Development Studies, HSS Department, 2014-19 batch in IIT Madras

Bring in transparency

Biyas Muhammed, Kayamkulam

Integrated MA in Development Studies, HSS Department, 2014-19 batch

In my experience, students who come from a rural background do not feel comfortable in the IIT in the initial days at least. Students from economically disadvantageous sections and socially backward communities have to face many headwinds.

We identified this problem when we conducted a survey among students regarding this. Students are faced with a pressure to prove themselves. They must excel in academic performance.

Recurring student suicides do not augur well for an institution. The way the IIT-M authorities deal with the problem leaves a lot to be desired. They sometimes try to keep everything under wraps, even the names of the victims. There is a lack of transparency. There were several suicides earlier but the abetment angle has never been probed.

As a member of the students' counselling group, I have met many students who had gone through months of depression. I know many students who dropped out or took a semester break because of the unbearable pressure. Many talented students lag because of the system. Authorities should be able to consider students' social background too.

Arya Prakash
Arya Prakash, Kollam from Integrated MA in English Studies, 2011-16 batch in IIT Madras

Keep the promises

Arya Prakash, Kollam

Integrated MA in English Studies, 2011-16 batch

The recurring students suicides in IIT-M and the official reaction are shocking. The authorities are trying to play down every incident.

Every student who makes it to an IIT is bound to be academically brilliant, making competition and resulting insecurities inevitable. IIT students go through the difficulties in adapting to the new atmosphere and the anxieties related to their career. Students have little recourse from the system when they face mental stress related to their course. Each incident underlines this problem.

IIT has many students who grapple with a lot of problems ranging from homesickness to mental health issues. The system lacks any mechanism to identify or mitigate these problems. After every incident, the authorities promise corrective measures but nothing has materialised. A demand for an external agency to study the mental health of the students has been ignored.

Caste discrimination is a powerful factor in IIT-M, as shown by studies conducted by Vasanta Kandasami and Ajanta Subramanian. Fatima Latheef's suicide calls for a deeper analysis.

Ditty Mathew
Ditty Mathew, Bengaluru, pursuing PhD in Computer Science, 2019

Protect backward students

Ditty Mathew, Bengaluru

PhD in Computer Science, 2019

IIT draws students from different places and different social backgrounds. There are students from poor families. They are forever ignored. So do the students admitted through reservation. They are more prone to depression.

Some students may not be prepared to the learning methods in the IIT. Students who score low are sometimes submitted to counselling. Yet many of the cases go unidentified. They become isolated.

A comprehensive study among IIT students regarding this aspect is long overdue. The authorities have to study the problem in its entirety.

IIT protest
Students protest in IIT Madras after Fathima's death.

No resident psychologist

Pratheesh Prakash, Kollam

MSc 2012

Fatima Latheef was the latest in a string of suicides in the IIT-M. The syllabus is heavy and the pressure to perform great. Students who join the institute after completing plus-two will find the atmosphere more unbearable.

Students' associations such as Chinta Bar had conducted seminars and mooted solutions based on the problems faced by students of previous batches. These suggestions were put forward as a resolution in the Students' Legislative Council but the administrative section of the institute was not ready to approve the corrective measures.

The campus has a clinic but no resident psychologist. Counselling and other services are far from efficient. Yet we cannot paint all faculty in a bad light based on the experience with a few of them. There are many among the faculty who are friendly with students. At the same time, there are teachers who expel dalit students for the flimsiest reason.

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