India's abysmal record of student suicide: a data analysis

According to the ADSI, 5,426 students died by suicide in 2001, and the figure more than doubled by 2021, to reach 13,089 cases. Who (or what) is to blame?

Representative image of a candlelight vigil (photo caption: Getty Images)
Representative image of a candlelight vigil (photo caption: Getty Images)

Jayant Pankaj

A 20-year-old third-year engineering student allegedly died by suicide after jumping from the third floor of DLF mall, Phase 3, on the evening of June 19 in Gurugram. The public relations officer of the Gurugram Police, Subhash Boken, mentioned the deceased’s mother saying the victim had been undergoing some mental stress for the past few months, the Hindustan Times reported.

She was one among the many victims of death by suicide in India's student population — and the numbers are terrifyingly high, and rising faster.

Even well into the 21st century, suicide remains an issue shrouded in stigma, and suicidal ideation in young people receives only inadequate attention. In fact, even India's current prime minister, Narendra Modi, caricatured a woman’s suicide at a media event on April 26. Shockingly, the audience burst into applause. And that audience reaction manifests our moral and empathetic position (or rather, records our failure of empathy for the desperate and despairing).

Now the Accidental Deaths and Suicide in India (ADSI) — a government body under the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) — has published a collective report showing that student suicide has increased drastically over the past few years.

Figure 1, based on data from the ADSI report, shows that student suicide has more than doubled in the past two decades. In 2001, 5,426 student suicide were reported, which eventually mounted in 2021 to 13,089 cases. The graph shows a drop in 2005 and 2012; however, since 2012, it has only been increasing. Following the coronavirus crisis, even more students have given up their lives. 'Student' as a profession has seen an increase by 3 percentage points in deaths by suicide, from 2001 (5 per cent) to 2021 (8 per cent), which is an abysmal record. 

The underreporting of suicide cases in the country means the actual situation may well be far worse than the ADSI data in Figure 2 shows. An article published in the the Lancet journal, 'Suicide prevention strategy in India' explains that the NCRB reports 37 per cent fewer cases than the Global Burden of Disease reports, on an average. This means only 63 cases are reported for every 100 actual cases in the country. 

November 2014, United Nations (UN), The Power of 1.8 Billion report considers, in comparison to other countries, India has a larger youth population. Even time and again, the political leaders cherish this fact too. However, among all the categories of people, the proportion of youth is also higher in the numbers who die by suicide, as Figure 2 points out. In 2017–21, most people who committed suicide tended to be young people (between 18 and 30 years).

The question remains, why is the number of suicides among youth rising at such a tremendous scale?

There maye be numerous factors behind the rise. According to a report in The Wire, in this age of aggressive neo-liberalisation, educational standards and the prospect of public sector jobs in India are dropping fast. Students who fail to secure their 'dream job' in the government sector or those who cannot clear the entrance examination for premier institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are victimised into blaming themselves and despairing of their own fortune. In such cases, depression rises, leading to suicide for far too many. The coaching centres encash the youth's 'hope for a better future' and have coalesced into a dominant industry in the education sector. The pressures these create seem to mould young persons into a state of poor self-worth, and self-esteem which is predicated on performance alone or primarily.

Dr Ameeta Parsuram, former professor in psychology at Delhi University, told National Herald, "The country is really backward when it comes to creating awareness among the masses for the relevance of psychological inputs at different stages of growth and different stages of social changes."

She further clarifies there is a poor understanding of mental health in Indian society. As a child grows, the responsibility lies on various social groups at the micro (family) and macro level (society) to fulfil the needs of an individual in a sensitive manner. However, due to a lack of sensitivity among the masses, a person ends up sometimes feeling feel guilty for their life choices. Unless and until the state takes the responsibility to create awareness about mental health among its citizens and attaches more importance to producing more mental health experts as well as creating greater opportunities for them such that they choose to work here, not just student suicide but many other mental health-related adversities will keep rising.

This narrative can be interpreted via Figure 3. It shows the number of people engaged in the private sector and those unemployed has significantly increased in the past five years, compared to those involved in public sector jobs. In a paper published in 'The National Library of Medicine' published in 2022 also states that data shows most of the people who dies by suicide are from financially weaker section of society, pointing, economic crisis as a major contributor to suicide in India (64.2 per cent out of 1,64,033 suicide cases in 2021had annual income below than Rs 1 lakh).

According to data presented by the Ministry of Education on April 5 to the Rajya Sabha, 33 students died by suicide across the IITs in India from 20182023. Even at such premiere institutes, then, there is no guarantee of a confident, happy life. And then, there are several well-publicised cases where students from marginalised castes have taken their own lives due to caste-based discrimination at such institutes. There are various such Dalit scholars and students died by suicide in India, such as, Rohit Vemula, Aniket Ambhore, Payal Tadvi, Darshan Solanki and number goes on.

Even Chief Justice of India, D Y Chandrachud on February 2023 acknowledged the fact that the rising death of Dalit and Adivasi scholars by suicide in India is worrisome while attending the 19th convocation of National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR).

While refering to the death of a Dalit scholar at IIT Bombay and an Adivasi student in the NLS Odisha, he said, "These numbers are not just statistics. These are stories sometimes of centuries of struggle. I believe that if we wish to address this issue, the first step is to acknowledge and recognise the problem."

Figure 4 maps the states that account for highest number of student suicide in India. Maharashtra (14 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (10 per cent), Tamil Nadu (9.5 per cent), Karnataka (6.5 per cent) and Odisha (6.4 per cent) are the worst-performing states, accounting for the highest number of suicides among students.

There isn't any single reason or cause that could be identified for these states to have a higher number of suicides, though. The number only points out that we are failing to arrest the rate suicide. What the overall pan-India picture does show is that governments at both the state level and at the Centre have failed to create a mass awareness of this rising trend or to address it effectively.

An individual takes the step to die by suicide only when there's an "inner desire to stop living" which is typically an unusual state of things — but is in these individuals being triggered frequently until death becomes the only solace for that individual.

There then must be prevalent conditions in society that cause a higher suicide rate. In most cases, then, it should be remediable or preventable. The annihilation of such conditions should be the goal of a state both out of empathy and a sense of self-preservation — after all, people are our biggest resource, surely, the populous nation that we are?

Arguably, our rate of youth suicide is an indicator that the state that has to push more resources into creating a society where people do not consider suicide as their 'best' option.

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