June 23, 2007

The Indian Institute of Technology and Mental Illness

While my husband is recuperating I receive telephone calls from concerned friends and family relations who enquire about his well being. Most of them know that my daughter struggles with a serious mental illness. When some of them tell me that they have prayed for our family I am moved.

One telephone call is troubling. It is from a seventy year old lady I have known for more than thirty years. She is concerned about her brilliant nephew who is living in USA. He had passed out of one of the renowned Indian Institute of Technology several years ago. His life was falling apart. He had stopped going to work because he said that his colleagues were trying to poison him. He said that people were following him. He was unable to sleep. His marriage too had broken up. There was no one to help him. His mother is no longer alive. His father who was in India did not want to go to USA. He refused to acknowledge that his son was very ill and needed to be treated quickly and helped in his recovery.

This reminded me of an unassuming, scholarly young man, who also graduated from an IIT few years ago. He got a scholarship to the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in USA. After completing his Masters at Rensselaer, he worked in USA for a few years and returned to India after he became aware that something was not all right. In India marriage is touted as a cure for mental illness. So he got married. Unfortunately it didn't work out. He married again after much coaxing by his family. This too broke up leading to a severe relapse. He is better now with regular visits to the psychiatrists, a regimen of medications, exercise. He is not able to hold a full-time job. He is reluctant to come out in the open to talk about his illness. People only want to hear the success stories of graduates from IIT achieving wealth, fame and glory. I wonder how many would want to read about an IIT ian's struggle with mental illness.

In India few talk about the fact that like any other institutes of learning, young men and women who study in the Indian Institutes of Technology popularly knows as IIT are also vulnerable to severe mental illnesses. Many who have passed out of the portals of these hallowed institutes struggle with serious mental illnesses like Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia…. Over the years I have read numerous newspaper reports of young men studying in IIT who have committed suicide. I feel sad that the Indian media and society still accepts such suicides as natural and justifiable phenomena. Families who have lost their child forever have not only to deal with grief but also the ignominy of their child being branded as 'coward', 'weak', 'weird',' deranged psycho'…by self-styled experts of suicide. The reasons often attributed to suicides are -' family problems', 'bad mothers', 'being a loner', 'coming from a small town', 'lacking mental strength', 'not being able to cope', 'too much of stress', 'result of a failed love affair', 'low tolerance' and even 'after all he had depression'. What is alarming is the continued acceptance of suicide by young people in India as the natural corollary to Depression. And that no one has paused to ponder that there are so many so called 'cowards'-- who have family problems, who have 'bad' mothers ,who come from small towns, who have difficulties coping, who have experienced a 'failed' love affair ,who supposedly 'lack' mental strength or 'low' tolerance - who have not committed suicide.

Posted by survivor at June 23, 2007 11:40 AM


I find this post sad but true. I passed out of IIT in 2006 & during my stay some 4 suicides occured , one of my batchmate. But people forgot them as quickly as they happened. Strangely authorities don't take ny steps to prevent the stress release in such a manner. but one thing which i earnestly desire that every newspaper should make the reporter covering astronomical salary figures to also cover stories of suicides and depression.

Posted by: Anshul Gupta at July 7, 2007 12:39 AM

I totally relate to what your are saying. Mental illnesses are rarely acknowledged in India. And worse this malaise is not limited to just our IITians, but also to many of our technical institutions, particulary our private colleges, which are raising the quantum of stress on their students to improve their ranking--which of course means more money for them in terms of students seeking paid seets and desperate parents making"donations".
It is also sad that most of our children, who are have made the mistake of taking sciences are coing out of our schools as mental wrecks. This is visible to any parent who has had children, some of whom have gone through the arts and commerce courses, while others have opted for sciences.
It is clear that because our teaching institutions lack the ability to rate talent, and shortages in education infrastructure is forcing them to raise the entry bar continuously to make the selection process easier for themselves, it is time that we as a nation apply our minds to what we are doing to our children. I would guess that children in India across the board study 20-30 times more than what children in other counttries do. But in the sciences, I would think that this per centage goes up to more.
Of course, stress is not the only reason for mental ailments, but I an only guess that it has to be a mitigating factor.
I have not looked at the figures (anyway with poor reportage, the figures would be misleading and hence one has to go by experiences) but I would suspect that what we refer to as the "inability to cope" has gone up significantly amongst our youth, and suicides have gone up faster amongst those in 16-30 age group, considering that mental ailments like schizophernia manifest itself in young adults at the lower end of this range.

Posted by: Jayanthi Iyengar at July 8, 2007 11:39 AM

I came to your site through diggindianews.com... You have written an extremely interesting article on depression, IITians and mental illness. It is true and unfortunate that in india often young people still do not teach and learn to cope with personal and emotional intelligence. Lot of emphasis is put on maths, science, getting a degree, education and the social structure. We need to find a place where we learn to understand and handle mental and emotional issues and this is accepted in the society as well.

Posted by: Sudeep Goyal at July 10, 2007 12:37 PM

I graduated from IIT in the year 1973; it was not so much of a race at that time and there was a lot of intellectual flexibility allowed. But later on, the coaching classes entered the picture and started creating the stereotype. You know, there are only 'x' types of problems in a topic, say 'gravitation' and you learn all the methods of solving that particular problem. So when a particular problem on gravitation comes in the exam, bang you have the solution!

I have shifted for the last three years into the academic line and now am a professor in a private college in Bangalore. During my school days, the relationship between the teacher and the students was: 'I am a teacher, and you are a student.' But now, it is a throughly commercial affair and this has changed to ' I am a service provider, and you are a client.' It makes me feel like a pimp as the desire to gain knowledge is completely missing in the majority.

You attempt to teach them to think independently or (in the examinations) give them problems which are not from the 'solved examples' in the textbook and you are labelled a difficult teacher. And yes, there is a annual grading system by the students and I am bound to be struck in the lower ranges.

But the situation is not that depressing - a small percentage of students, who inevitably are from the lower income groups, show a lot of interest. Another friend of mine, who teaches in a village nearby Bangalore, confirms this. It is the social strata that matters a lot.

I suppose the rules of the 'peer comparison' game have changed too: in my days, I was better than you, because I can run 800 meters in under 2 minutes or I have better grades than you. But now it has shifted to: I have Nike shoes while you have plain Bata!!

I do feel very scared for my two teenaged boys...


Posted by: Jayant Kamath at July 13, 2007 07:39 PM

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