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The scourge of ceiling fans

By on Dec 3, 2010 in Food For Thought | 13 comments

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You might have heard the news story of a final year student at IIT Kanpur who committed suicide recently (the eighth such incident in the past five years). To the credit of the university’s administration, a panel was formed to investigate the tragedy and the root cause has been identified – ceiling fans.

The reason they’ve come up with such a solution is that if a student is depressed, his suicidal tendencies are aggravated looking at the fan hanging from the ceiling, as now he finds a ready setup to execute his idea.

– Anonymous Internet commenter

Photo credit: Jeff Kramer

The Devil's inanimate helper on earth

The plan – which reeks of genius – is to replace all ceiling fans with pedestal fans so that students cannot commit suicide any more. This, of course, is a problem if you want to commit suicide and don’t have ceiling fans. It seems to me, however, that there are a few loopholes:

  1. ‘Suicidee’ might chew the wire of the pedestal fan, ingest hazardous plastics initially followed by an incredibly painful electrocution.
  2. Suicidee might unscrew cover of pedestal fan and stick their face into the rotating blades, dismembering their face and causing an eventual, slow death due to massive blood loss.
  3. Suicidee might eat rat poison / overdose on sleeping pills / smoke cigarettes for 5-6 decades.
  4. Suicidee might jump out of a window, as demonstrated in the video below.

I stand by the finding of the panel that the most logical conclusion as to the cause of this tragedy is, indeed, ceiling fans. However, I believe that further steps are needed. In the best interests of the safety of students at IIT Kanpur, all of them should be straitjacketed and imprisoned in solitary confinement. These measures might seem drastic but what has to be done has to be done – in the best interests of the students.

And now, a message for the slow-witted diplodocuses in the audience. (Hi y’all at the back, chewing cud! Glad you could make it here!)

In case even this is not clear enough, you aren't seeing the sign(s).

****

It pains and angers me deeply (I don’t want to discuss ‘why’) when someone dismisses depression as ‘just feeling sad’. Depression is not that time when you really wanted to go to the cinema with your friends on your birthday and couldn’t because of heavy rains. There’s no way to “man up” and brush off depression by listening to a couple of jokes.

Depression is a certified medical condition; the onset might be triggered by social or other factors but once it sets in it causes physical reactions in your body such as hormonal imbalances. More importantly, depression is a treatable medical condition – given proper medical care and rehabilitation time.

Frankly, I am appalled by the state of psychiatric care in India. Psychiatrists are rarely found in hospitals except for the select few private ones, thus beyond the reach of anyone not fortunate enough to be a part of India’s rich or upwardly mobile middle class. Even then, Indian society does not accept that psychological disorders are valid medical conditions. The tendency is to equate any psychological condition to ‘insane’ or ‘retarded’, often exquisitely summed up as “How could my son/daughter be ‘mental’?”

Most Indian – showing an astounding level of stupidity and reckless disregard – turn any suggestion of a loved one needing psychological help into an ego issue. This same reckless disregard seeps through in the decision take by the IIT Kanpur administration. “These are the best and brightest students in the country! How dare you suggest they ‘might need help’?”, the thinking goes. And so, the blame must lie in something else. Maybe ceiling fans. Maybe Internet access. Maybe parents staying too frequently in touch with students through increased usage of cellphones. That’s it! Block cellphones!

Setting up a counselling centre and expecting students to self-evaluate and seek help is patently ridiculous. It takes a lot of personal courage admit that one needs to consult a psychiatrist, and the social stigma attached with taking that step doesn’t help matters at all. A person who’s depressed (or suffering from any other disorder) might not even realize they need to seek help.

At my university, for instance, we had students who volunteered to work with the Care Services department. I was a senior resident myself, and thus a part of this team. Each student volunteer was ‘assigned’ to 10-20 residents living in accommodations on campus. Our job was to meet with the residents weekly and proactively seek out whether everything was okay with them. This could be anything – academic pressure, financial trouble, health problems, psychological problems, roommates stealing food from kitchens – what have you, and we would refer this to the relevant department within the university. Residents could reach out to us not just in weekly meeting, but any time they wanted – by calling us directly or a student mentor helpline. It works. Residents are more likely to open up to peers – who are bound to keep any interactions confidential – than their own friend or straight-away approaching a counsellor.

All this is in addition to the existing 24/7 distress helpline and a member of teaching staff assigned as your personal mentor for the length of your university life. Steps such as this is just an illustrative example; universities abroad actively engage in such measures to care for their student population.

The hardest thing for a depressed person is to find someone to speak to. The trigger itself might have originated from parents / relatives / friends, which rules out approaching them. Add the social stigma present in India and the general fear of being made fun of for speaking about what undoubtedly would be their innermost thoughts, and you’ll realize how difficult it can be for a depressed person to speak up.

News reports after the recent IIT Kanpur tragedy quoted professors claiming such things “didn’t happen in our days”. They blame less face-to-face socializing among students these days as the reason. It. Doesn’t. Matter. Social mores change; what was relevant then may not be relevant now. For better or worse, this is how students today are – and the administrations of universities and schools across India have to deal with that. Yes, schools too. I know of friends who had classmates in high school committing suicide because they couldn’t bear the stress of entrance exams.

Going to university is naturally a time of emotional turmoil. You are away from family (and friends you’ve grown up with) for extended periods. Pressure to do well in exams after an eternity of missing lectures. Apprehension about finding a job after graduating. Romantic hookups and breakups. For the first time in your life, going to university forces you to deal with things as an adult – with the life experience of a teenager. This is why universities abroad take student care seriously. This is why they put in so much effort into it. It matters, if they can provide help on time to even that one person who is in their darkest hour. You are their responsibility for the years that you’ll be staying there.

And it is time that Indian universities stepped up to fulfill that same responsibility towards their students.



13 Comments

    • Ankur Banerjee

      December 4, 2010

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      I can assure you that I’m not. I’m very serious when I say though that I find the current state of things completely unacceptable.

  1. aditi

    December 4, 2010

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    i cannot agree more. it’s appalling. but let me tell you this. people from my dad’s generation who were or are in depression are very difficult to reach out to. on the other 2 of my closest friends were victims of depression-one chronic and other acute. both of them got great support from their parents and friends of course..and medication too..so things are changing..

  2. Vivek

    December 4, 2010

    Post a Reply

    Now that I’ve had time to go through this post properly – last time it was a mere cursory glance, I’ve analysed that there’s a lot if italicized text in it. And usually wherever there’s italics, there’s strong sentiment behind it.

    I agree with you – the trivialization of psychiatric conditions is appalling. It’s not right when you don’t treat all parts of your body and soul equally – this includes your state of mind.

    But I see some progress in the right direction – I’ve seen a number of multi-lingual TV and newspaper advertisements attempting to sensitize the public about the fact that depression is an actual medical condition.

    In fact, before this is even taken to universities, we need to focus on schools. DPS VK, for instance, has a counselor, but I don’t think that everybody (especially fresh admissions in class 11th) is aware of that. And even they do, one has to realize that the counselor is actually a psychology teacher – a very busy person who also has to double up as a signatory for several foreign application documents. Essentially, there is no dedicated counselor in school to handle issues that a student might be facing. And there is a need for such a person because, as Ankur pointed out, a person suffering from depression feels very much alone and would want to approach neither friends nor family with his/her issues. This is where the need for an understanding counselor materializes, methinks…

    • Ankur Banerjee

      December 5, 2010

      Post a Reply

      Lack of ‘proper’ counsellors in Indian schools is another big concern. Other than a few ‘elite’ schools such as DPS (even then, the ‘premiere’ DPS branches), Amity, Springdales et al, hardly any schools have counsellors. For the ones that do, the position is often one where they are forced to take up multiple roles like career counselling, SUPW coordination, event coordination, psychological counselling – everything gets lumped under ‘counselling’ when all of these are really distinct job roles. It’s unlikely that a student who needs help will feel secure enough in trusting that person enough.

  3. Espèra

    December 5, 2010

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    Okay, that’s as dumb an idea as removing dustbins, to prevent terrorist attacks. ><

  4. wild iris

    December 10, 2010

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    This post is so well-written and expressed. I couldn’t agree more; and it’s nice to have someone write about it – I only wish it would reach those who really need to see it. Ever since I started going to college three years ago, I’ve increasingly felt that the value of a student in our country really isn’t much more than the name and fame they bring to their institution. Be it something like this, or the staff-administration wars, or whatever, ultimately it’s the students that have the transient phase which therefore gets dismissed. It’s so unfair of them to be taking our future for granted like that.

    • Ankur Banerjee

      December 10, 2010

      Post a Reply

      Thanks. The sad thing is that the administration in Indian universities always turn student protests of any kind into a massive crackdown because of their egos rather than engaging in reasonable dialogue. It doesn’t help that student unions in India are primarily a launchpad to join political parties, rather than actually serve the interests of the student body as it is in other countries. This is especially worse in engineering colleges, where there are hardly any sort of effective, elected student bodies to seek representation in university policy discussions.

  5. Ishan saluja

    December 10, 2010

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    Rightly said. However, we’ve got to realize that it’s not entirely the institutions fault, although quite heavily it is. Indians have a huge ego problem in general, add to that the predominating belief in society that anyone going to a psychiatrist is a crazy person does not help. The fear of social acceptance keeps most people away from seeking expert advice. They’d rather cry alone in the dark. I for one, haven’t seen a single advertisement advising people that depression is a condition that can be treated. We need a huge campaign and fast.

    • Ankur Banerjee

      December 10, 2010

      Post a Reply

      Proper education of society is a larger goal. For now, it’s imperative that universities get their act together and hire medical professionals to set policies related to these matters. Which they clearly don’t seem to be; banning ceiling fans is a very typical ‘engineer-like’ response. They don’t have to come up with innovative solutions for this. Student care models already exist in US/UK and have been proven to be effective. What is needed is the administrative gumption to admit today’s college kids have vastly different needs from previous generations and implement those measures.

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