Bridging the ‘class’ divide: What can be done to prevent student suicide

Can teachers be held accountable if one of their students kills themselves after an act of disciplining? The Madras High Court, in a recent judgement, said teachers could not be accused of abetment of a student’s suicide if they were merely taking “corrective” measures to discipline children. While experts agreed with this view, they argued that teachers do have to be more sensitive in handling young people as they have the power to them from self-destructive behaviour. However, the best way to prevent suicides, especially among youngsters, is through policy interventions, mental health experts explained.
The HC had said that teachers cannot be held accountable for a student’s suicide if their action did not exceed the limit of disciplining the student within the school campus and conducting of re-examination or retesting for the students who had performed poorly in the exam. “Any such incident or words spoken to or uttered by the teacher on the poor performance (of) students cannot amount to instigation ... for the offence under Section 306 IPC,” the court said. 
A misbehaving child was a misunderstood child and was often in need of special care and attention, as opposed to rigorous disciplining, experts told Express, pointing out that depression was manifested differently in teenagers than in adults. While adults may be able to isolate themselves or turn silent when depressed, teenagers might show manifold signs, including acting aggressively and deliberately breaking rules, said Debmitta Dutta, a parenting consultant and the founder of www.whatparentsask.com. “When you look human evolutionary history, the teenage is the point when an individual isolates himself or herself from parents to ventures out into the world on their own. So it is normal for teens to withdraw from parents even as they are in need of an guidance. This is the role teachers can play in a teenager’s life,” said Dutta.
Place to show frustrations
When children feel targeted at home, there is high chance that they might express those frustrations at school. If the child feels targeted at school as well they will express that distress through abnormal behaviour, she said adding, “teenagers will open up more easily if teachers establish that they have the same goal as the students. They should communicate repeatedly that they are well-wishers.” The interests of the teacher and the student are aligned as the performance of the student shows the performance of the teacher; teachers simply need to make it clear that they are to help.
Teenagers coming from poor socio-economic background need more help from teachers as they go through greater distress, opined Sriram Naganathan, a core team member of ThinkQ. Until Class 8, private schools retain students without fuss as are a source of income, however, the focus shifts to maintaining a good pass percentage as they touch Class 9, he said. Sriram rued that there was a reverse migration of underperforming students into government schools, where the teacher does not know their history, but is forced to make them perform in an environment that is completely new to them. Also, stringent punishments, rather than have a positive effect of improving students’ performance, have a negative effect. Teenagers are extremely self-conscious, said Arundhati Swamy, the head at parent engagement programmes at Parent Circle.
“Even one instance of humiliation may reduce their self-esteem drastically. Instead teachers should call them aside, and be firm and empathetic when communicating with them,” she said, adding that a teacher must focus on turning these mistakes into learning opportunities. “Teachers must engage in meaningful conversations with teens that leads to problem solving. However, if the student seems to be caught in a more complicated problem, the teacher must refer the child to an external counsellor,” she advised.
Showing biasFurther, teachers sometimes express bias in dealing with students which affects them negatively. An academically good student does not get humiliated and punished for bad behaviour as much as a poorly scoring student does, pointed out Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar, the founder of Sneha, a suicide prevention helpline. “This kind of bias has a large impact on students and teachers should be sensitised and trained on such issues,” she said.
“There is domestic violence, substance abuse among other things that students deal with at home and they come to school in a very agitated mood. Teachers, who have their own share of personal problems, come with the focus of getting a better pass percentage. This mismatch leads to exclusion of attention to micro-details of the teen’s life,” said Naganathan. 
This, of course, puts youngsters at risk. Mental health experts explained that while teachers could do their bit, prevention of self-harm and suicide among vulnerable youngsters needs policy interventions.
Need for comprehensive solutionWhen the reasons leading up to a suicide are so varied, the solutions should be as comprehensive, said Dr Soumithra Pathare, a psychiatrist and director of Centre of Mental Health, Law and Policy. While teachers can act as gatekeepers and help identify students who may need mental health assistance, the responsibility cannot be thrust entirely on them as it may be counter-productive, he said.
“If you force them to do something they are not fully trained to do, they will simply say that it is not their responsibility. Instead comprehensive programmes and policy interventions can address the problem,” he said. “In a college, for example, addressing bullying, is likely to have far more impact in preventing suicide than appointing a counsellor. Similarly, we found that a majority of women who kill themselves are victims of domestic violence,” he explained. An example of a policy intervention that drastically reduced student suicide was the implementation of supplementary exams for students who had failed their public exams, said Dr Vijaykumar.
“Based on the conversations we had with student callers on our helpline, we found that those who failed after scoring well through the year were more prone to destructive tendencies, as opposed to students who consistently scored badly. In the early 2000s we sent a memorandum to the government asking it to introduce supplementary exams and the order was passed in 2003,” she said.Between 2004 and now, the total number of suicides dropped by over 50 per cent in cities like Chennai after the supplementary exams were introduced, she said. However, the effort had a comparatively lower reach in rural areas. 
“Not having a one-point exam that decides their college admissions, expanding the scope of continuous assessment, bringing in a grade-based system as opposed to accurate marking system and increasing life-skill training will bring about a lot of difference,” she said. Another intervention that could help both teachers and students was one the State had actually introduced close to a decade ago, PK Ilamaran, president, Tamil Nadu Government Teachers’ Association said.
The Tamil Nadu government had briefly introduced one class a week during which students were allowed to sing, dance, act or demonstrate any skill in front of the class, he said. “We used to call them joyful classes. Such classes reduced the fear of a class teacher and helped them build a friendship and rapport with their teachers,” he said, pointing out that this also helped teachers identify if something was wrong with a student.

25 per cent Rise
Student suicides are a universal problem. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States. According to a study in 2017, 17.2 per cent of high schoolers were seriously considering suicide, a 25 percent rise since 2009
Why punishments may not always work
Frustrated with the lack of performance and bad behaviour, teachers indulge in punishments to meet targets. However, this may not be very effective, as the part of the brain that processes punishment and consequences is not fully developed in adolescents according to the study “The Computational Development of Reinforcement Learning during Adolescence,”  published in 2016. Adolescent brains aren’t all that motivated to avoid penalties, the study found. It is for this reason that the criminal justice system treats juveniles differently
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