Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: PTI.
Kozhikode: Even after the number of COVID-19 patients Kerala surged recently, it has recorded comparatively few deaths – 34, with 9,000 patients or so. However, the state has been faced with another crisis – an increasing number of suicides and suicide attempts among children and adolescents.
Since the last week of March, when the COVID-19 lockdown commenced in the state, 66 children younger than 18 years have died by suicide, according to state government data. “This is becoming a very serious social issue,” chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in a press briefing last week.
The state government believes the continuing suspension of academic institutions and issues in families are among the major causes. It has constituted a panel to study the problem and has established a new tele-counselling service, staffed by student volunteers.
However, before moving to such an innovative scheme, experts argue for more and better planning on the state’s part. According them, families can play a greater role in helping control the number of suicides and suicide attempts among children and adolescents, especially since schools and colleges are closed and students can’t easily consult with their teachers anymore.
“Parents have a lot to do prevent this trend,” Dr Seema Uthaman, head of the department of psychiatric social work at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Kozhikode, said. “They should give children confidence and be affectionate with them.”
Then again, while families can provide the necessary support, they may not be sufficient.
Incidents like the death of a young man from Thrissur who studied at a military school in Thiruvananthapuram spotlight the importance of responsible behaviour on the school’s and teachers’ parts. “My son underwent great pressure from the school authorities … Their behaviour took my son’s life,” Unnikrishnan, the boy’s father and former member of the Indian military, told The Wire. “Teachers should behave more responsibly too.”
The recent death by suicide of a Dalit student also sparked a debate on social exclusion and economic inequality. A prominent tribal activist in Kerala said the student had been “a victim of government disparity”.
Mental health experts also warn against glorifying suicides in the press. According to Dr Uthaman, even covering suicides in an unqualified manner could exert an ambiguous influence on how some students approach the death. “At least some students may feel that suicide is an ‘acceptable’ solution to their issues, like failing in exams.”
Now, the Kerala government plans to tackle the problem with student volunteers as counsellors.
Specifically, chief minister Vijayan has said the state will enlist student police cadets (SPC), a volunteer group of students across Kerala, to act as tele-counsellors. The idea has polarised experts – some say the state should only field trained professionals, while others think it could reap favourable results.
Dr Uthaman, for example, said she supports the idea only if the government is serious about it. “A student volunteer cannot replace a professional with an MPhil or a PhD,” she said. “But I think student volunteers can be primarily given the training on how to handle telephonic calls from children who deserve emotional support, and on how to connect them with a trained mental health professional.” The professional can follow-up later.
Both the state government and mental health experts are completely agree on one issue: the negative impact of the continued suspension of educational institutions.
School-based interventions are already recognised as an important measure to prevent suicides and attempts. Several schools and colleges in the state, including many run by the government, also offer counselling services, guidance, awareness classes and individual counselling. But the lockdown brought these programmes to a halt.
Student suicide is neither exclusively linked to the COVID-19 pandemic nor is it a Kerala-only concern. In India, a student dies by suicide every hour, according to National Crime Records Bureau data. Some recent studies have also shown that while several factors affect the mental health of the youth, the country is still struggling with a huge shortage of mental-health professionals. Some regions suffer disproportionately, like the Kashmir valley.
Muhammed Sabith is an independent journalist currently based in Kozhikode, Kerala.