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Student suicides in Pakistan: More than a mental health issue

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Suicide rates in students are burgeoning day by day.

Hundreds of students have attempted and at least a dozen have committed suicide in the past two years. Suicide is a social and psychological issue. Every time a student commits suicide, there is one question that comes to mind and that is that why are we constantly failing as a society?

Last day, a 3rd year MBBS student, Mohammed Atif Arain allegedly committed suicide in his room in Ibn-e-Sina hostel, LUMHS, Jamshoro.

Though initial reports suggest it was a suicide but investigations are raising many questions. It is reported that Atif was depressed due to two main issues: One, because one of his brothers died of cancer and another is suffering from same disease and two, he was exhausted by pressure of supplementary exams in each semester.

Via a thorough research of daily papers in Pakistan, I found 10 apparent suicide events in medical campuses in the country during the past 2 years.

For example, pressure of studies and time management took life of Abdul Basit of Hamdard College of Medicine and Dentistry, pressure of supplementary exams took life of Nargis from Sahara Medical College and bad terms with academia took life of Usman Javed of Rehbar Medical College. In Aga Khan University, 5 students have committed suicide in recent past. Moreover, Shahnawaz of QAMC hanged himself to death for failing two papers, while Anam Rustam of FMDC took her life within 10 days of house job posting.

It’s an alarming situation when youngsters, pursuing a career in health sciences and supposed to save the ailing humanity from despair of illnesses, have themselves been taking their own lives out of apparently masked but not so hidden epidemic of depression and alienation that is product of today’s neo-liberal consumerist social order.

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Educational institutes, like all other social spaces, have been turned into a repository of traditional wisdom and lack of any critical discourse turns them into factories producing money-mongering machines.

Humanitarian and social sciences improve the mental and social life of students and make them politically and socially mature. It’s saddening that our academia, including parents and media culture, discourage students to participate in humanitarian and social sciences (either as academic career or part-time hobby) because of the so called state hegemony to place no value for the aforementioned subjects in the job market. When you have a look at the syllabus of different campuses, you find no element to address and enlighten the social and mental aspect of students’ training.

Although students commit suicides all around the world, and there are myriads of reasons, academic reasons top all others. In third world countries like Pakistan, the recent monopoly of neo-liberal policies, western NGOs and other organizations have strengthened the concept of class-based education system.

Introduction of first world social activities like Model United Nations leadership programs among others are some examples that apparently serve no social purpose here but rather create an environment of alienation and depression for lower and middle class students.

This is to fill the void created by state through banning students unions which otherwise can serve a purpose of healthy discourse and bonding among students and academia. The toxic environment of competition for good grades, all-pervasive plagiarism to have good number of publications, career counseling sessions and to make it a matter of life or death to travel abroad are a few strong reasons that overwhelm youngsters and put unnecessary pressure on them.

Moreover, students are judged by three choices: An excellent academic record, a first world type social life in campus, and being part of out-of-campus indigenous social organizations or mainstream political parties.

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In today’s scenario, none of the 3 options address the factors that shape an individual student’s personality; issues such as family conflicts, financial problems, peer pressure, social stigma are left unconsidered but expectations from students are raised.

All of this creates a certain cognitive dissonance. Many students consult religious clerics for comfort who can offer them nothing but placebo. In return, thousands are radicalized by fundamentalists. But final abode of most such students is a life of despair and depression that leads to suicide.

Once suicide among medical students was considered an unthinkable act. Studies have been showing that medical syllabus used in campuses across the sub-continent has become stress trigger that needs to be updated and made student-friendly.

Departments of student affairs are not serving the purpose of student welfare too, rather they are busy organizing events on state holidays.

It’s the need of time to have student counsels in campuses. Establishing literary societies and organizing stress management seminars or suicide prevention events can be redeeming as well. Pakistani medical universities need to consider the fact that instead of wasting time and money on unproductive events, they must turn their attention to student welfare and mental health.

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