When I moved to Singapore to study last year, I thought I might finally be able to deal with my anxiety better after it made my college life in India miserable.
But In the last eight weeks alone, I’ve had to step out of class at least six times, as that familiar feeling of dread settled in yet again.
It usually starts as an uneasiness in my chest, followed by laboured breathing and compounded by the sudden onset of a panic attack.
It can be triggered by something as simple as feeling out-of-depth in my quantitative statistics class or being generally anxious about work. There is no single reason why this happens.
I have struggled with anxiety since my Delhi University days. I just didn’t know what to call it.
It took a panic attack during my third semester – which almost had me miss an exam – for a friend to force me to go see a doctor and begin figuring out what was wrong.
The acute afflictions of depression and anxiety
Despite housing over one lakh students, Delhi University’s complete lack of focus on mental health is not just surprising, but scary.
A large part of the student population moves to Delhi for university education from elsewhere. They’re in a new environment, often facing culture shocks and the sexism and/or racism that comes with it, further aggravated by the lack of a supportive academic environment.
The information gap with regards to counselling facilities or even being educated about whether you need to visit one, are harming students in, quite literally, lethal ways.
This is not just the reality at Delhi University.
Recent incidents at RIE Bhopal and NLSIU Bangalore have demonstrated an urgent need for mental health support to students, while highlighting the neglect shown by the authorities.
For years, we’ve simply accepted that depression and suicide are a part of life for students studying in Kota or for those who are struggling with engineering. Mental health is a footnote in movies and media, often a cheap stand-up line to elicit laughter from misery.
In Singapore, I saw a prioritisation of mental health I had not seen before.
On the first day of orientation, we were openly and repeatedly told about the counselling services provided by the school alongside the option of discussing any such issue with the administrative staff.
When I had my first series of attacks in Singapore, after a horrible quant exam, I approached the academic officers to discuss the challenges I was facing.
The space to discuss this and, most importantly, have my problem legitimised is something Indian universities have not even come close to replicating.
Now, mostly, 15 minutes of sitting outside class, doing the breathing exercise my counsellor taught me, attending my counselling sessions and being thankful that I am where I am helps me manage the attacks and balance my work.
Sadly, not everyone has the privilege or information to reach out to doctors when this happens.
We often explain it away as nervousness, normalise it and believe that it will pass – without ever understanding what it really is.
In Indian universities, the problem is acute.
The issue is not just that universities do not have counselling sessions or routine conversations about mental health. The problem also comes from the narrative that if you suffer mental health issues, you are not productive or are incapable of dealing with the pressure, and you do not deserve to be in said educational institution.
Tethering productivity and deservedness to mental health does not only achieve its purpose of shaming those who openly discuss this, but also creates a deterrence to seek help. It then becomes fetishised as a lack of character and mental growth, a statement I was surprised to hear echoed by friends I now have in Singapore.
Singapore isn’t perfect either. It has one of the highest stress rates among university students in the world.
But there are also resources available for students to deal with this stress. India, sadly, fails on both fronts.
The administrative staff in most Indian colleges are reluctant to engage with students at all, leave alone sitting down with them to listen to the challenges they face.
This alienation that we have created between administrators and students is one of the core reasons for mental health issues to exacerbate and go unaddressed.
After all the hard-work students put in to get into a university in India, we still fail them by piling on the pressure and closing off all channels for personal growth and well-being.
If nothing else, university spaces are supposed to help you grow emotionally and professionally. While we are far from that, the least we can do is to ensure we help them take care of their own mental health.
However, there are obviously economic constraints in providing counsellors for all students in Indian universities.
So, what can be the way forward?
Indian universities need to sensitise professors and administrative staffs about mental health issues.
Information about certified counsellors and psychiatrists should be provided to all students with access provided at subsidised rates. Most universities already have health centre’s and having a counsellor on contract should become standard practice.
Regular awareness campaigns and emergency medical services in the case of life threatening situations should be normalised. Most importantly, students need to be constantly told about this, to not only empower them to reach out, but to allow them to help their friends reach out when in need.
I have learnt to manage and balance my health and work with some guidance and support.
In India, efforts made in this direction will help thousands of students get the help and support they want. And need.
Binil Mathew is currently pursuing his Master’s in Public Policy from Singapore. He likes talking bout most things but loves going for conferences for the free lunch more than anything else.
Featured image credit: Pixabay.