De-stressing India’s Frazzled Students

In the heart of New Delhi, students at the Mirambika School start their day by first helping their teachers tidy up and beautify their classrooms. They then head for a meditation session to help them “connect their outer selves with the inner,” according to the school. Only once these activities are out of the way, do the studies begin.

Similarly, students at Gurgaon’s Heritage School in north India begin their day with meditation sessions, sports and a glass of fresh juice. The school has a yoga and meditation centre that buzzes with activity throughout the day. Three yogic instructors help students master breath control and stress.

Indian health authorities are deeply concerned about stress, particularly revolving around studies. India was reported in 2004 to have the world’s highest youth suicide rate, with suicides accounting for 50to 75 percent of all deaths in adolescent girls and about a quarter of all deaths in boys between the ages of 10 to 19, most commonly by hanging, followed by poisoning, usually with insecticide.

In Asia overall, tremendous stress is placed on very young students to succeed and even exceed academically. In Hong Kong for example there is even a school operating to prepare two and a half year-old children for ‘interviews’ with what are believed to be the better kindergartens. Koreans have their famed hagwon, Japan their juku. Cram schools have become a de facto parallel education system across much of the region, with large numbers of students spending as much as 18 to 20 hours a day attending school or in extracurricular studies.

In India, however, stress is plaguing students to such an extent that it has started killing them. Parental pressure and rising ambitions are brewing a deadly cocktail for young minds to the point where, according to India’s Ministry of Health, more than 16,000 Indian students have committed suicide in the last three years. While 5,857 students killed themselves in 2006, the figure for 2007 was 6,008. Tragically, the numbers for 2008 are expected to be even higher.

During exam time in March — and in June when results are declared — newspapers and TV footage are replete with reports of youngsters attempting suicide over their inability to cope with academic pressure. It is fairly common at these times for student help lines to be inundated with distress calls.

“Most students call in to share their fears about exams and parental pressure. However, a few also call in to say that they’ve got suicide on their mind,” said a volunteer at Sanjeevni, a New Delhi-based help line service. In March this year, the volunteer said, one youth even called in to ask where he could buy a pistol to shoot his mother for pressuring him.

“Given our education system, Indian students face tremendous stress and competition. While we can’t do much to change government policy, we can certainly try and help students cope better with external pressures,” says Kirti Reddy, a teacher at Bal Bharati International School. The school recently joined with a Delhi-based theatre company to help students get involved in stage performances. “Theatre is a wonderful de-stressor and is very cathartic. Our students have found it to be very relaxing,” Reddy says.

Like Mirambika and Heritage, many other Indian schools are trying hard to control stress and anxiety among their students through a smorgasbord of activities. Some factor in “creative” hours in the curriculum, others invite foreign experts to hold interactive sessions with parents and students, while still others tap into Indian techniques like yoga, meditation, pranik healing and breath control. All of this is designed to help de-stress young minds. Recently, the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry even urged the Union Human Resource Development Ministry to make yoga a compulsory subject in all government schools.

Some private schools are also employing counselors. Experts from various fields like psychology, medicine and management are also being invited to conduct interactive sessions at schools to help parents and students discuss and make decisions about career choices or behavioral problems. The Planetary Peace Movement Trust, a global non-governmental organization (NGO) has also been introducing sessions of meditation, physical exercises, deep abdominal breathing and chanting of `Om’ in numerous schools.

Officials at the World Health Organization say a multifaceted strategy is necessary to help Indian students tackle anxiety, depression, stress and suicidal tendencies.

"The Indian education system needs a total revamp. It lays too much emphasis on rote learning and marks, discounting personality development,” says an Indian educationist associated with the WHO.

According to clinical psychologist Vikas Purohit, parental expectations play a big part in pushing their children to the brink – and thus the 10-year-old who wanted to shoot his mother. This scenario is aggravated by the changing dynamics of an Indian family – particularly the death of the joint family system – which means that there are fewer family elders around to counsel the young ones. With both parents working and nobody at home to turn to, it is easy for young people to become depressed, a feeling which all too often ends in suicide.

In fact a study conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India's Social Development Foundation, titled 'Plight of Working Parents Towards their Children', released a few years ago, concluded from a sample of 3,000 working couples that Indian parents who work full time spend only 30 minutes a day with their children.

Apart from these factors, says Delhi-based educationist Geet Oberoi, the chief executive officer of Orkids, an organization that works with handicapped children, the pressure of the Indian education system on a young mind is such that it breeds insecurity. “Even if you get full marks, you’re still not secure enough about getting a seat in a good college. There’s always somebody lurking round the corner, feel students, ready to grab their seat,” Oberoi says.

This is largely because there is too much pressure and too few resources. About 70 percent of India’s 1.1 billion population is under 30, a sizeable chunk of them students. This year, over 130,000 students appeared for Class X and XII Board exams conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education, compared with 120,000 last year.

These numbers created a mad scramble for the limited number of seats available at topnotch engineering/medical/MBA colleges across the country. For undergraduate B.Tech and M.Tech programs offered through the joint entrance examination, for instance, around 350,000 students competed for just 5,000 seats.

Similarly, for blue-chip Indian Institute of Management outfits, only 1,200 students out of a pool of about 250,000 get seats each year. This makes the exam even more selective than all the top US business schools put together. In fact the overall acceptance rate at IIM ranges from 0.1 to 0.4 per cent compared with acceptance of around 5 to 10 percent in the top US schools.

Analysts have often criticized the Indian government’s frugal expenditure on education. According to the Kothari Commission, established in 1966, education expenditure should be a minimum of 6 percent of GDP. However, India’s current figure hovers around 4 percent, far less than Saudi Arabia which invests 9.5 percent and Norway, Malaysia, France and South Africa all of which spend in excess of five per cent.

Given this scenario, the measures taken by the schools such as the Mirambika School will obviously be welcome.