Saru Gupta
Author:
February 4, 2020
The article analyses the high student suicide rate in India through a lens of what's lacking in a public policy approach to the problem. The author explores possible policy changes that will help cultivate a healthier educational atmosphere for students.

What is Academic Burnout?

Academic Burnout, or the “burnout syndrome” is characterized by a “combination of exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment caused by chronic work stress”. 1 The amalgamation of these emotions often lead to the feeling of prolonged sadness, low self-esteem, ineffectiveness, and an overall disassociation from one’s work or success over time. Studies, akin to the ones conducted by Ioanna V. Papathanasiou prove that academic burnout is an antecedent to depression and other mental health problems.2 Information from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) illustrates that depression is a precursor to suicidal thoughts and actions.

According to the latest available data from the National Crime Records Bureau, a student commits suicide every hour in India. 3 This highlights a prominent problem in student demographic. Thus, it is essential to investigate why suicide rates are constantly increasing in India as opposed to the rest of the world.4 Moreover, it is imperative to find a solution for the same. This article attempts to explore how incorporating policies aimed at reducing academic burnout in educational institutes will help lower the suicide rates in India.

To ensure effective policy change, it is essential to have a thorough understanding of the causes of academic burnout in Indian institutions.

Social and Economic Background for Academic Burnout

India spends about 0.07%of its GDP on the provision of mental health services in the country.5 6 This stands in stark contrast to developed countries like Denmark that spend at least 4% of their annual GDP on mental health services.7 By spending on mental health provisions, the State ensures that there are mental health professionals in the country- these could be in the form of counselors, crisis hotline workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists. In India, due to the lack of funding for these provisions, there is a dearth of mental health professionals and services in the country.8 The Mental Health Act passed 2017 outlines the allocation of finances for mental health professionals in the state and aims to safeguard the rights of people with mental health disorders.9 However, the Act does take into account other means of mental illness prevention like creating awareness. Moreover, the Act does not mandate educational or commercial institutions to create a safe atmosphere. This is further reflected in the education system where publicly funded universities and schools do not have mental health professionals on campus – therefore, students do not have access to these facilities when they need help.10

The language that surrounds the mental health culture in India is extremely toxic. As a result of this, people are uncomfortable while expressing their problems and this apprehends students from seeking help. Seeking mental health assistance is extremely difficult due to the social stigmas attached to the issue; if a person is going to therapy, they are called “weak or paagal”.11  Another corollary for the same is the narrative around academia in households and educational institutes, where students are meant to ‘just deal with it’.

The Indian education system is built on a punitive and test-score driven method as opposed to holistic development.12 For example, if a child is not performing well, they are often shamed or defamed in front of the class. The students can’t even find comfort at home because often parents are extremely strict and demanding when it comes to academics.

Research conducted by the World Economic Forum revealed that households are not a safe space where students can voice their concerns and apprehensions about their education.13 Moreover, due to the high emphasis that is put on a “successful career”, children are often pushed towards subjects that they are not comfortable with or even keen on doing; this is because intelligence is mostly measured through technical subjects and not music, arts, sports, etc. 14 15 This creates a discord in the student’s schemas – a schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information 16– if they are unable to perform well in subjects deemed important by the society. As a result, students start building a negative narrative for themselves. They start seeing themselves as failures and this often leads to depression, which in turn could lead to suicide.17 Countries like Finland and Denmark that focus on the core strengths of students are reported to have a happier student population.18

Lastly, one of the most important contributors to the student suicide crisis is the glorification of stress. In the Indian academic world, overworking and high workloads are often considered to be markers of “productivity”.19 Students often brag about the all-nighters that they’re pulling in order to manage the workload they have- this often comes in the forms of classwork, extracurriculars, student government, competitions, etc. The idea of being a part of everything on campus is seen as a paradigm for an “exemplary student”. Hence, students themselves refuse to take a break or acknowledge that their academic stress is unhealthy.

Thus, the academic burnout problem can be seen as a silent epidemic in India that needs to be addressed at an institutional level to ensure pro-active measures. Policy changes would allow for early and systematic intervention.

Policy Solutions to tackle Academic Burnout:

  1. Educational life is supposed to ready students for the work-life, thus, especially in universities, the teaching atmosphere imitates the work environment. One of the first policy change that needs to be addressed is the acceptance of long working hours in Indian society. This promotes the ideology of “not having a life outside work” and thus, it is common for people to go into work at 9 in the morning and not leave until 10 or 12 at night.20 This is recreated in educational institutes to prep the students for long work hours. However, data has shown that long corporate work hours also lead to depression.21 Therefore, the national policy about work hours needs to include the number of hours an employee must work per day. In light of the evidence presented above, this policy needs to account for both academic and work burnout. Hence, limiting both, educational institutes and workplaces to have an 8-hour work policy. This could possibly trickle down to academic institutions which would result in workload reduction for students and would also dispel the glorification of long working days. Moreover, this policy would have other benefits like both students and employees having a better quality of life due to an increase in leisure hours. This might also, in turn, boost productivity as happier individuals would be more keen and motivated to work. 
  2. There needs to be a national policy that mandates all educational institutes to have an appropriate number of counsellors on campus. This would allow for early intervention in a mental health crisis. Moreover, it would nudge students who don’t have a supportive background at home to seek help on campus. This could create a community in universities that acts as a safe space, allowing students to be more candid and vocal about their issues. In addition to this, the provision of counsellors and mental health aid would a) raise awareness about the cause, b) normalize feeling overwhelmed and thus, reduce stigma around workload anxiety, and c) it would disrupt the negative schemas built-in students’ heads when it comes to academics.
  3. There needs to be a national policy that mandates all educational institutes to hold sensitization workshops. These workshops should be used to address the interactions between professors, students, and work: they must delineate how professors give criticism to students about their work and the language professors use. Negative schemas are often built through constant use of negative language. For example, calling a student an idiot is not a productive critique, because it is not a qualifier for the work a student does. These workshops must highlight the negative mental health effects of defamation and educate professors on how to give constructive feedback.22 The workshops can also feature psychologists who could identify and explain the early identification signs of burnout to allow early intervention for students. This would be an expensive and ambitious undertaking. To offset some of the costs, government schools could partner up with various NGOs that provide mental health counselling for a nominal fee.
  4. The state government also needs to allocate more funds in the budget towards the mental health crisis in India and create a more holistic education pedagogy. A significant step towards the betterment of mental health in educational institutes was the implementation of the ‘Happiness Curriculum’23 in Delhi’s public schools. The Happiness curriculum encourages students to peruse and explore non-academic interests and avenues. The model is founded on the philosophy of Nagraj (1999) and O’Brien (2008), and it aims to cultivate sensory, momentary and deeper happiness in students. This curriculum reverses the punitive test-score driven narrative present in education and leads to more holistic student development.

National policy is the best avenue to address student burnout. European countries have responded to the burnout crisis through the implementation of national policies aimed at reducing burnout, as established by a study at Cornell University.24 Similarly, Australia mentions burnout as a part of the Australian Health and Safety at Work Act, and in Bulgaria, the National Health Strategy 2014-2020 aims to prevent burnout at workplaces.25 Thus, there is a case to be made that national policy is the way to instill institutional change.

Student suicide rates are not just a humanitarian crisis but it also has a significant economic cost. In his book, dying for a paycheck, Jeffery Pfeffer writes that “indirect costs from things such as disengagement, being physically present but not feeling well enough to do one’s best, and being distracted by stress are typically estimated to be about five times as large as the direct medical costs”. 26 He writes in the context of employees and company work environment, however, the same argument can be applied to students. If students aren’t present and engaged with their material, they won’t perform at their “peak”- this is supported by research that says that a human brain can only focus and be productive for 6 hours in a day.27 Moreover, there is an analogical brain drain happening due to the suicide epidemic, India is losing out on well-educated professionals which is depleting India of human resources.28 Thus, the urgency for a call for action is imminent- the discussion about burnout must enter the political discourse of the country.

The current educational environment in the country is detrimental to students’ mental health, and it is imperative for policymakers to address academic burnout. Burnout, as explored above is a consequence of unhealthy academic environments that do not consider the mental health degradation of students. Policies aimed at training and raising awareness about the cause, outlining work hours and increased public spending on mental health facilities can combat the problem at hand.


References:

[1]  Maslach, Christina, Wilmar B. B. Schaufeli, and P. Leiter Micheal , Job Burnout, (2001).

[2] Papathanasiou Ioanna, “Work-related Mental Consequences: Implications of Burnout on Mental Health Status Among Health Care Providers,” ACTA Information Medica 23, 1. (2015) 22-28. 10.5455/aim.2015.23.22-28

[3]  Ankita Mukhopadhyay, When Will India Address Its Student Suicide Crisis? (2019)

[4]  Lakshmi Vijaykumar, Suicide and its prevention: The urgent need in India (April 2007)

[5]  Swagata Yadavar, Budget 2018: India’s Healthcare Crisis Is Holding back National Potential. (2018)

[6] Swagata Yadavar, Budget 2018: India’s Healthcare Crisis Is Holding back National Potential,  (2018)

[7] European Union, 2018

[8]  Birla, Neerja Birla,  Mental Health in Inida: 7.5% of the country affected; less than 4,000 experts available,  (The Econimical Times, 2019)

[9]https://mohfw.gov.in/sites/default/files/Final%20Draft%20Rules%20MHC%20Act%2C%202017%20%281%29.pdf

[10] New privately funded universities still have a conversation around mental health, and might even have counsellors.

[11]  Birla, Neerja Birla,  Mental Health in Inida: 7.5% of the country affected; less than 4,000 experts available,  (The Econimical Times, 2019)

[12]  Ramanuj Mukherjee, Indian Education System: What needs to change? (n.d)

[13] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/04/5-charts-that-reveal-how-india-sees-mental-health/

[14] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/minorityview/indian-parents-have-very-high-expectations-about-their-childrens-education-and-careers/

[15]  Rohan Keni, Why are Indian parents obsessed with science-related degrees, (Gulf News, 2017)

[16] Schemas: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-self-schema-2795026

[17]  Julie Scelfo, Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection, (New York, 2015).

[18] These stats by Forbes shows the happiest student population across the world: https://www.forbes.com/sites/duncanmadden/2019/03/28/ranked-the-10-happiest-countries-in-the-world-in-2019/#5e7b104648a5

[19] Jodi Clarke, How the Glorification of Busyness Impacts Our Well-Being, (June, 2019).

[20] https://www.hrkatha.com/research/indian-employees-put-in-longer-working-hours/

[21] Jodi Clarke, How the Glorification of Busyness Impacts Our Well-Being, (June, 2019)

[22] Personality attacks also lead to self-fulfilling prophecy which refers to the phenomenon of someone “excepting” a behaviour based on the social label that has been given to them. People tend to assume that the social label given to them is what is “expected” out of them and thus they act in a similar manner because they start identifying with it. This is significant in educational institutes as students start behaving like the personality attacks that are expected out of them. Thus, bright students might also start to believe that they are idiots : https://www.jstor.org/stable/1175727?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[23] http://edudel.nic.in/welcome_folder/happiness/HappinessCurriculumFramework_2019.pdf

[24]   Aumayr-Pintar, Christine, Catherine CErf, and Parent Agnès Thirion, Burnout in the Workplace: A Review of the Data and Policy Responses in the EU, (2018)

[25] Read the document for more policy solutions. A tangent to this idea could be the fact that India needs a meticulous cross-state study to outline and understand the different kinds of burnout faced by students. As the article mentions above, students from the happiest student population situates itself in these European countries- thus, there is a clear correlation between pro-mental health policies and a happier student population.

[26]  Jeffer  Pfeffer, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performanceand What We Can Do About It, (New York, 2018)

[27]  Travis Bradberry, Why The 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work, (June, 2016)

[28] Also referred to as ‘human capital flight’, brain drain is the departure of educated or professional people from one country, economic sector, or field for another usually for better pay or living conditions