Mental Health at IITK : A Study

“I wish I become that kid again, who had a passion for everything in life, who could study hours a day and enjoy every bit of it. Now here, I spend 50% of the day lying on my bed, only dreaming of a better tomorrow. Sleep is my drug. I have got a strong urge to fly, but I’ve got nowhere to fly to…” – An anonymous respondent

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In an attempt to gauge the extent of prevalence and awareness of mental illness in our campus, Vox Populi conducted a survey on mental health during the summers of 2018. The survey received an amassing 1105 responses comprising of both the undergraduate (UG) and the postgraduate (PG) student community. We bring to you the responses of our study in this article.

Is Mental Illness a ‘disease’?

Mental illness, according to Wikipedia, is “a behavioural or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment of personal functioning”. The symptoms and results may be varying. It may be something as mild as a change in sleep cycle to something as dangerous and urgent as suicidal thoughts. But the first thing that needs to be understood in this regard is that it is a disease and may need professional help and attention just like any other disease.

About 43.3% of respondents opined that mental illness is indeed a disease. Mr Shoukath Ali, an institute counsellor affiliated with the Counselling Service, says, “Spreading awareness about the existence of mental health problems is very important. People need to realise that mental health problems are as normal as physical problems.” We can move towards solving the problem only when we have established it. It needs to be understood that mental illness is also a disease, like any other physical disease, and can be cured with professional help.

What is the current state of Mental Health in IIT Kanpur?

We next tried to understand how prevalent Mental Health Issues are on campus. We asked our respondents to rate the prevalence on a scale of 1 to 5. Here, 1 meant it is extremely uncommon and 5 meant it is extremely common.

The average of the 1105 responses obtained was 3.85, an alarmingly high number. Prof. Sandeep Shukla, Head, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, believes this statistic is fairly accurate and says, “Mental Health issues are definitely on a rise, so much that they can be called a potential epidemic.” However, Prof. Nandini Nilakantan, Head, Institute Counselling Service, has a different opinion. She says, Short-term depression, anxiety and stress is faced by almost all of us but talking on a prolonged level, I seriously believe 3.8 is too large a number. I feel it’s a hype and a misunderstanding of the term mental health issues.”

What are the major causes of Mental Health Issues on campus?

Thus far, it has been established that mental illness as a disease does exist on campus. Our next major concern was to identify the major causes of mental health issues on campus. For this, we split our study into two sections, namely PhD and Non-PhD. The PhD community is predominantly occupied with research work, while the Non-PhD community has more coursework thus leading to different lifestyles and different problems. We asked both of them about the major sources of distress in their lives.

 Let us first look at the Non-PhD students.

Non – PhD Community

Unsurprisingly, the problem that stands out is academic pressure, with as many as 64.3% citing it as a major cause of mental distress. Often it is the pressure of expectations and the inability to perform to your anticipated best that gets over people. Adityaa Bajpai, UG Coordinator, Counselling Service, says, “Students feel that they are expected to do well. Under this pressure to perform academic performance stands in their face like a wall, while it is just a hurdle that they need to figure how to get around.” However, Prof Achla M Raina, the Dean of Academic Affairs (DoAA), opines, “Academic pressure is just a punching bag. The actual problems are bigger. Blaming the academic pressure is a weak, incomplete and less open-minded line of thought. Students need to realise this that they need to put in the minimum effort as well.” On a similar note, Prof Nandini Nilakantan adds that a lot of faculty members like herself have already watered down the difficulty of their courses which, in her words, “itself is a disservice and unfair for students who want to be challenged, especially in an institute like IIT.”

The other highlighted issue was that of peer pressure. Seeing people around you perform better than you can at times be hurting. In view of Nilotpal Pathak, Coordinator Counselling Service, “Given that in most of the situations we are competing against each other, a bit of jealousy is natural but only further detrimental to our own well being.”  He adds, “I think that is the problem with a lot of us – we do not have respect for others’ struggles. The guy you see doing well is probably going through some other problem you are unaware of.”

Another major issue of concern is loneliness. About 46.5% of respondents admitted that they feel lonely on campus. The reasons may be varying. One such issue is the language barrier that hinders one’s interactions. When you are not from the same linguistic group as your peers you don’t gel in well with people around you. In an interaction with us, S Nirmal Kumar, a Y16 batch undergraduate student says, “I am from Chennai. Though many millennials there know how to read and write Hindi, only a handful of them could speak and understand it. When I came to IIT Kanpur (and by extension, North India) for the first time, I felt great difficulty in understanding what other people said. I almost felt like an alien. I was fearful, thinking about whether I made the right decision or not.” The lack of acceptance in society for people who are non-conforming in gender and sexuality can also be a cause. It can potentially drive such individuals into seclusion. A story written to us reads, “I feel depressed because I am homosexual. I thought that I’ll lose all my friends and family and eventually will be left all alone. I have to work so hard so that nobody suspects. From inside I feel so lonely and depressed. I feel like I’m not accepted here.”

As high as 42.4% of respondents admitted having been through Existential Crisis. This, as Nilotpal says, is a bigger issue than most people would agree. He says, Most of us have at least had bouts of this feeling, in my opinion, though some less severely than others of course. And in my experience, it does not necessarily result from some kind of failure either- it could result from the smallest of things (or not)- a feeling of having lived the same day over and over for three years, a reluctance to be a part of the cut-throat competition that is the world outside, doubts about your own capability, doubts about the point of all this effort, about what you really want to do …..”. He further adds, “Pursuing abandoned hobbies for some time each day helped me a lot. Dwindling wing feeling and rising individualism as the years pass is one of the primary reasons why this feeling is more common in non-freshers in my opinion (apart from the obvious fact that they have been here longer)- so hanging out with friends more could also help.”

PhD Community

For the PhD community, the biggest issue that rises to the fore is the student-faculty guide relationship. As many as 48.8% of the respondents agreed that they have had issues with their faculty guides. Nishant Agarwal, former PG Core Team Member, Counselling Service, says, “Thesis guides call students on an urgent basis and some of them make students do their work instead of doing the research. Also, they have the power to stop their stipends if they say no or underperform or are not proactive in their approach.”

There are claims about lack of support, about mistreatment, about odd working hours and many more. A story written to us read, “Please treat me as a human, not as a slave…for whom there is no Sunday…they call us at any time for work. Please do the counselling of professors, it would be really helpful.” A Y11 PhD student writes, “My guide … retired from campus and joined somewhere else. Now he doesn’t want to give me time to meet him, he asks everything via mail. My acting guide says he has got nothing to do with my research. I requested DPGC and HOD for help but all they said was it is your PhD, you need to solve it yourself, we can’t do anything in this regard.”

Lack of preliminary knowledge is another big issue as agreed to by 44.8% respondents. Students lack knowledge of basic sciences like mathematics. Many times their research is halted by the inability to decode the mathematics behind the equations. Nishant says, “The issue is more among students who have done their graduation from private engineering colleges where the environment is not as competitive as IIT Kanpur. They face many difficulties in understanding the subject.” The academic programmes at IIT Kanpur have been considerate of the issue. Basic science courses have been made compulsory for students. But, clearly, as our data shows this has not been sufficient to address the situation and needs more attention.

Another pressing issue is the individualistic culture amongst the PhD students. As Nishant says, “The involving research activities leave students with very little time to socialise. The primary reason of isolation is their lifestyle. Most of the students prefer working in the night. As a result, their life cycles change. The unhealthy lifestyle inhibits them from spending time with their friends or batchmates. They eventually give up on socialisation and loneliness creeps in.”

Uncertainties of future, pressure from family, marriage or relationship issues are other major factors that affect the life of a PhD student. A stipend of Rs. 25,000 that they get might well be good enough for a lavish life at IIT Kanpur but certainly not outside. “I have some of my friends sustaining on as low as (Rs) 1500 per month sending rest of the money to their family”, says Nishant. Adding to their miseries is the air of uncertainty around their future. Recently, more students have started to register for the placements on campus. This new trend is because of the lack of postdoctoral opportunities around. People are forced to take a job elsewhere while applying for postdoctoral positions.

Another highlighting issue was the long duration of the PhD programme. Excessively long periods of research programmes become painfully frustrating at times. It gets even more difficult for female candidates. They are forced by their family for marriage. There have been instances when female research scholars were forced to leave their PhD in 5th year and forced into marriage. Richa Mudliar, a Y16 PhD says, “The situation in foreign universities is different where students are working on problems established by professors. But, here we have to do all the work on our own with little support from the professors. This lengthens the PhD programme in our country.” Prof Shukla in regard to this said, “In foreign universities, the mentors are paid for guiding, whereas here that isn’t the case. That’s where a bit of incentive lacks. Also, it’s not that always everything will be done by the guides. Hard work and dedication is also required from students.”

Student-Guide relationship is a major concern for the PhD students and the institute is constantly coming up with plans to improve it. Prof Achla Raina believes that the faculty-student relations need intervention. She says, “Pinning the blame on either the student or the guide is not a solution. Students should have the confidence and trust to open up and report problems that they are facing. Resolution of conflict is necessary and if mediation is required then there are no two ways about it.” The Counselling Service has recently started a new programme for PhD students where sessions are organized with the director and HODs regarding the research-based perspective followed by a session with a counsellor and 7-8 senior PhD students who would share their experiences.

A Y16 batch PhD student writes, “We educated people always talk about the exploitation of labour class in India. But we never realise that the same kind of exploitation is being faced by research scholars in India. The attitude of professors is like – What? They say they are getting less stipend? Tell them even if the stipend is decreased instead of increasing, the PhD seats in IITs will not be empty.” Clearly, we have a long way to go towards building a healthier campus. If we are to maintain our reputation as an institution where cutting-edge research takes place, we need to ensure that our research scholars are free from unnecessary stress that hinders their effectiveness at their work.

How effective have our support systems been?

Identifying mental health problems as a disease, understanding its causes and recognising it around us are surely important steps towards combating mental health issues. But all of it ultimately depends on the support system that people have at their disposal. The success of a support system lies in its approachability and the trust people have in it.

We attempted a similar analysis of our support systems. In an attempt to gauge the sensitization in our campus about mental health problems, we asked our respondents if they had sought help when troubled with mental health issues.

While nearly half of the respondents approaching someone for help is a good sign, it is the other half that needs to be addressed. Mr Shaukath says, “People shouldn’t be stigmatised and stereotyped that people who are facing mental health issues are weird or not normal. The stigma surrounding counsellor visits must reduce before more such students are able to muster the courage to talk about their problems.” There is a need of an environment where people feel comfortable to talk about their problems.

But, what stops people to approach help? We asked the respondents who did not reach out for help about what actually inhibited them.

The two prime reasons were ‘the feeling that nobody could help’ (53.3%) and ‘lack of trust in the system’ (35.7%). Another very saddening truth was the existence of fear in the minds of people. It could be in various forms, either of revealing your state, or of being judged, or even of not being taken seriously. Much of this can be accredited to the stigma associated with mental health issues. We, as a community, are no doubt responsible for not having built a system considerate enough. But the situation becomes even worse when Counselling Service is discredited with claims of non-confidentiality. A Y16 student writes, “An issue that is supposed to be within CS is being discussed on the mess tables and CCD and what not. C’mon, seriously? Is this the way the person is going to be helped?” Statements like these, among others, pose serious questions at our face that need to be addressed.

Next, we tried to understand the impact the present system has had on people. We asked those who sought help if at all it made a difference.

The most saddening revelation was 34.4% of the respondents saying ‘It made the situation worse’, certainly not what we as an institute would have desired. Another 27.6% of respondents were of the view that it did not help at all. Put together, this 62 % of our respondents put forth serious questions before us. The system that we refer to here includes not only the Counselling Service but all of us. The subject of study could be a friend who approaches us when in need and we failed to help him.

To gauge the effectiveness of the institute’s established support system, we questioned the respondents who approached professional help in the form of the institute counsellors and visiting psychiatrist about their experience. A rating of 1 means very disappointing and 5 means very satisfying.

The average of the 512 responses we received was an abysmal 2.10 –  a number that needs to be looked at and thought upon as we move ahead. Mrs Sharmistha Chakraborty, former Institute Counsellor and an integral part of the Counselling Service until her retirement last year, concludes, “The very fact that people have started conversing about mental health in IITK and that so many people have responded to this survey is testimony to what CS (Counselling Service) has achieved so far. This in itself was not an easy journey. However, the revelations of this survey do indeed call for introspection on behalf of the CS and the institute.”

Written By: Aditya Sonthalia, Shreyash Ravi, Yash Kuwade, Akash Bhardwaj and Soumyadeep Datta

Infographics: Shreyash Ravi

Featured Image: Snehil Saluja