Pranav Jeevan P
According to the ministry of education data, from 2014-2021, the IITs recorded 34 deaths by suicides of which 18 were from SC and OBC communities. Dalit rights activist Anoop Kumar, in the 2011 documentary Death of Merit, said that a major section of those who committed suicides in the IITs between 2007 and 2011 were dalits. Even the data on student dropout shows that most students belong to SC/ST/OBC categories. It is no hidden fact that students from the SC/ST community face immense harassment and discrimination on the campus from savarna students, faculties, and employees. Several students have reported cases of institutional discrimination and explicit threats from teachers in the recent past. In April 2021, Seema Singh, a professor in the humanities and social science department of IIT Kharagpur, was heard openly hurling abuses at an English preparatory class for SC/ST students. These institutional and casual ways of casteism cause mental and psychological stress on students, and IITs does not provide any mechanisms to help them. Even though many IITs have counselling and mental health services available, they are designed only to cater the needs of savarna students. Moreover, these counselors are not sensitized to understand the social realities of caste that affect students from SC/ST communities, rendering them inadequate to offer support or, at times, aggravating students’ troubles. IITs do not hire mental health experts from Dalit Bahujan Adivasi (DBA) communities as counsellors which further exacerbate the situation.
Recently, APPSC IIT Bombay have brought out an old social media post of Hima Anaredy, the head counsellor of Student Wellness Centre (SWC) of IIT Bombay, where she is openly passing anti-reservation remarks and questioning the ‘merit’ of students availing reservation. This the only textual public post in her Facebook page for the past 7 years. Students feel intimidated and uncomfortable going to talk about their mental health issues to such a person who is openly propagating casteist views against a constitutional provision for representation of underrepresented communities. It makes her incompetent to provide mental health support. Many DBA students of the institute said that they did not approach SWC after seeing this Facebook post. The most significant chunk of caste-based harassment students face is these elite campuses is due to the anti-reservation sentiment prevalent there and such posts by those in charge of student wellness makes life miserable for DBA students.
Students allege that there is a clear caste bias in the way the SWC treats a savarna student and a DBA student. One student says that when his friend who was upper caste went to see the counselor, he was made to feel better and comfortable, but when he himself went to the same counselor, she was using the merit argument often and kept on insinuating that he was not intelligent enough, even saying “I don’t think you can handle”. The student started suffering from imposter syndrome after going to this counsellor. Experiences like these slowly chips away confidence, taking away the sense of belongingness and makes one feel inadequate, alienated and depressed.
Most of the students feel that the counselors hired by IIT are neither competent nor sensitive enough to help them with their mental health issues. One student says that he went to one of the counselors for one and half years, and met her regularly every two weeks. It started with the normal therapy, but once he opened up about insecurity about his JEE rank, she immediately responded, “I guessed that”. She ignored the other issues he had with respect to his childhood and only focused on his JEE rank and claimed that all his issues stem from lack of confidence. He says that he was clearly misdiagnosed. She was of no help and send him to the institute clinical psychiatrist, who gave “stingy” medicines which were useless.
Another student explains the ordeal he had to undergo in his final semester, “I was under too much stress, I lost my grandfather recently and had to complete 48 credits. One day I called her on the phone when I was feeling too much anxiety and she tried to calm me down. But next day when I met her, she started scolding me saying “You are playing the victim.” I was so shocked and cried the during the entire session while she just said “I am not sorry for telling you this.” It was such a traumatic experience that it completely destroyed him mentally and later took multiple sessions with two therapists outside IIT to get over this trauma and self-doubt of “am I really playing the victim”.
They even push academically strong students into depression. A student says that when the topper in his batch went to SWC to talk about his personal problems at home, the counsellor gave such bad suggestions that it worsened his situation. Instead of helping, these counsellors are digging the graves of DBA students.
Bandhu, an alumni led mental health initiative in IIT Bombay, is another counselling body which lacks caste sensitization while dealing with DBA students. Even though Bandhu program understands how harassment due identities of gender and sexual orientation can affect mental health, they deny caste has any impact on students’ mental health wellness. Even after constant requests from various student groups of IIT Bombay to be more caste aware, the Bandhu initiative has refused to include caste as factor in mental health issues. It is clear that the savarna alumni of IITs only wants to fund programs that caters to the needs of savarna students.
There is also a clear lack of awareness among students about various mental health issues and a lot of stigma is still associated with availing mental health services. Students are sometimes harassed by peers for even availing mental health support. In such an environment, insensitive, casteist and discriminatory behaviour of campus counsellors are shutting the hope of DBA students in finding good mental health services.
Mental health is still taught and practiced as an illness that is devoid of social factors and onus on getting better falls solely on the individual. They function under the assumption that all mental health issues are caused not by social structures that oppress individuals, but due to chemical imbalances in brain. The oppressive social structures and power hierarchies present in our educational institutes and society is completely ignored when dealing with mental health issues of students.
“We are told from day one that we are abled-bodied/abled minded humans who must at all cost work hard and propagate the myth of meritocracy. Thus, the lone student from a marginalized community who scores high is celebrated as a PR story while reports on student suicides particularly from marginalized communities are ignored as depression stories. This false binary of separating depression from oppression/of suggesting multiple causes to depression shows how the State and this society is only interested in washing their hands off.”
Counselling centers like the SWC and Bandhu are used to wash off the responsibility of the institution in the harassment and discrimination faced by the students. The students who approach these services to talk about the harassment they suffer are made to believe that the issues they are facing are “just in their head”. They are made to open up about other personal issues so that the focus is shifted to their individual problems rather than the institute. This becomes a convenient tool to wash off institutional responsibility in case of a suicide where the counsellors can provide a clean chit to the institute saying that the suicide was due to personal and psychological issues. The IITs/IIMs have been brushing off suicides under the carpet for years blaming it on the individual student as a case of depression in a “weak student” who could not “cope with the rigorous academic environment” and these mental health services are a means to aid that process.
The documentary series Death of Merit recorded 18 Dalit student suicides between 2007-2011 along with the interviews with parents of these students. It is clear from these interviews that students who faced discrimination sought psychological help and were diagnosed with depression. When the families demanded enquiry on the structural discrimination faced by these students, the institutes cited the students’ depression as evidence against families’ claims, rendering invisible the institutional violence that led to the students’ psychological distress. The practice of psychological diagnoses become complicit in the institutional framework that actively refuses to acknowledge caste discrimination.
The understanding of mental health by these premier institutes was clear when IISc replaced the ceiling fans in hostels with wall-mounted fans, and restricted students access to terraces and narrow balconies in an attempt to stop suicides. Similarly, IIT Madras installed suicide prevention device in the ceiling fans as measure to prevent suicides as if the ceiling fans are the primary causes of suicides. The actions of these self-proclaimed ‘meritorious’ people shed light to the pitiable understanding of the issue and their so called “solutions” to address a structural issue of institutional oppression.
One of the causes for the depreciating mental health issue of students is the vitamin B12 deficiency caused by vegetarian foods. The levels of vitamin B12 found in meat sources like fish and lever far outstrip the levels found in vegetarian foods. The glorification of ‘pure’ vegetarian food and the harassment faced for eating meet can also push students to consume less vitamin B12 rich food, which can also exacerbate the mental health issues already caused by casteist harassment and discrimination. They are not even allowed to eat their food in peace.
Only 3 % of faculty in IITs come from SC/ST communities and the lack of faculty from similar community further adds to the woes of DBA students. The student-faculty interactions invariably favor the savarna students due the common experiences shared with savarna faculties. Even in mental health awareness programs, the role-play situations are designed to suit the savarna lifestyles which DBA students cannot connect with. Being unable to relate to the savarna experiences that prevails in the campus and classroom, students from DBA communities suffer from a divided sense of self, resulting in self-rejection accompanied by painful feelings of abandonment and exclusion.
Since the field of psychiatry is dominated by savarnas, they tend to label the psychological impact of oppressive experiences as the fault of individual over-sensitivity, or as irrational responses on their part, while ignoring the social hierarchies, such as caste, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religion, that creates inequities through power relations and cause feelings of inferiority. Here the individual’s suffering becomes an “objective” point, placed outside of its caste-culture context.
Mental health education should be seen as an elite discipline, because access to its services and resources are available mainly to the savarnas. They reject the mental health issues of people from the lower castes by subjugating them and degrading their value as individuals. The experiences of DBA remain absent from mental health discourses, which intensifies their exclusion. At the same time, the savarnas set the standards of “normality” for personality and behaviour, derived from their savarna realities and sensibilities. Mental health frameworks exacerbate existing oppressions when they fail to apply principles of social justice while engaging with DBA individuals. The problems faced by DBA students does not end with the implementation of affirmative action policies, but in recognizing that caste is experienced in everyday practices, such as segregation of living spaces, institutional support for harassment, bureaucratic labelling as “category students”, and the continual characterization of student depression and suicide as lack of capacity in education.
Mental health practitioners and policy makers must recognize how current psychiatric practice and policy can be harmful for DBA students. New confidentiality policies must allow DBA students to get care even without a diagnosis of depression as a pre-requisite. Mental health policy must diversify resources to more than diagnosis and medication by recognizing existing potential networks of care like Ambedkarite student bodies within institutes. They can promote the therapeutic outcomes of group therapy, such as expression of psychological distress, recognition that students are not alone in their experience, reduction of self-blame, and organization for collaborative advocacy. Policies should also center psychological support around Dalit cultures of resistance to everyday casteism and violence under caste regulation. Mental health practitioners who are ‘experts’ in the psychosocial effects of caste discrimination will be critical to such efforts and students will feel comfortable in confiding in them leading to better mental health outcomes.
“The process of producing knowledge without a critical consciousness of caste hierarchy – including within the educational institute – becomes an instrument of exploitation by creating a market of elitist myths about knowledge itself. The majority of educational institutes are, in this manner, complicit in the transmission of dominant ideologies in the classroom. – Rajesh Pawar”
If you are facing mental health issues and want to reach out, here is a list of caste aware mental health support:
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Pranav Jeevan P is currently a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay. He has earlier studied quantum computing in IIT Madras and Robotics at IIT Kanpur.