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Physical and Mental Health

In my previous blog on fatalistic attitude found in our midst, there was a comment pointing out that the blog was ‘meandering with anecdotes’ and concluded that it was a mark of semi-educated politicians. If one thing I have not learned in life, that is to think and act like politicians, educated or not. Of course, that is in my view. I have always referred to K. Kamaraj, a former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who was not ‘educated’ and did a lot to improve the state. I do share my experiences that may or may not be helpful or relatable to others. I am not an expert on physical or mental health. My experiences tell me some things that I like to share with anyone who is interested. These are my views as an individual and these do not represent the views of any other person or an Institution.

What causes a suicide? I have seen suicides happening in various circumstances all the time. A recent newspaper report points out a marginal increase in suicide in 2020 compared to 2019 (1). I wonder if there are as many reasons as the number of cases. If a suicide happens in an academic institutes like IISc, the immediate, and at times, wrong conclusion is academic pressure!

Our Institute has been in the news for wrong reasons in recent times. There were a few suicides in the last couple of years. Institute has taken many steps which include the following: i) Appointing more clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and other health care professionals who can stay with students in the hostel to help them; ii) Every Department/Unit has a committee that can help with anyone in stress; iii) Anyone with an IISc emailid can seek professional help online through the portal yourdost.com in confidence; iv) Anyone with an IISc id, can consult with several professional psychologists in Bangalore without having to take a referral from our health centre (in general, for consulting anyone outside, a referral is needed); and of course we do have a health centre which is more like a primary health centre that has been treating most of us with health related issues. In particular, during the second wave of Covid during April – June 2021, IISc decided not to send all students back home. Our health centre did a remarkable job of keeping our campus healthy. We did lose a few lives to Covid, some of them have been either retired or elderly relatives of one of us, staying out of campus. We lost two excellent staff who were in service, also staying out of campus. Even in these cases, our health centre was very helpful in providing all assistance. We also witnessed a few suicides on campus. In addition to all the steps taken, recently it appears that the administration has decided to change the ceiling fans to wall mounted fans as the ceiling fans had been used for suicides in some cases. Those who were aware of all these steps and those who didn’t know any of these, focused on the removal of ceiling fan to criticize and ridicule the Institute. Of course, everyone knows ceiling fans are not the cause for suicides. I think this step was not needed and this may not affect the suicide rate in any way. Those who are interested can look at this website for more information (2):

From the few recent cases in IISc, that I had some information about, academic pressure was not even one of the reasons. One student had completed his Ph.D. with flying colors and obtained a very good postdoctoral position in Europe. He left a note indicating that he would try to be a better son/brother in the next birth and committed suicide. Another student had depression. Healthcare professionals advised that he be given a break and sent back home. He was sent back home. It turned out that the depression was due to some situation at home. He pleaded for permission to return to the campus which was eventually given. He committed suicide after returning to the campus. For a news reporter, all of these appear as results of academic pressure cooker! Who has time for a detailed analysis and reporting! Besides, on matters like these, it is important to maintain confidentiality and Institute may not be able to share all the information it has.

Mental health is as important as physical health and there is no denying that. Most everyone writing about mental health, seems to indicate that there has been more awareness of mental health now than ever and it should be treated exactly like physical health. Failure, whether in an exam or a relationship can lead to depression. Experiencing a trauma can lead to depression as well. Experienced counselors can help individuals cope up with such failure/trauma. There are several lifestyle practices that affect physical health as well. As adults, it is our responsibility to take care of our health, physical or mental. Institutions like IISc, do have a primary health centre which can provide assistance for common illness. These are not multi-specialty hospitals with experts treating every organs. Doctors in our health centre refer patients needing more care to other hospitals in the city. Now everyone associated with IISc has some insurance and the Institute arranges for treatment without pay or reimbursement of some expenses depending on many things.

I had to interact with a few students who have complained about depression and anxiety. They were getting treatment from counselors. It appeared that for some of these students working in the laboratory caused depression and if they did not have to work they did not have depression. If someone’s health does not allow them to work in a laboratory without depression, it appears that they should find other things to do. Is Institution like IISc free of bullying? Is there any harassment of anyone based on their caste, gender, language, region, religion …? Institute does not allow any such harassment and it has established several mechanisms to counter this. Whether it is IISc or India or any other place in the world, there are rules and regulations. There can be a few individuals who may violate these. It is important in every system to be aware of such possibilities and take measures to prevent harassment and in cases where an individual is caught, take some action. IISc has several such mechanisms and people who were caught have been punished.

Another negative news from IISc in the recent times was about a faculty member being dismissed for sexual harassment. One other faculty member who was guilty was also suspended and this did not come in the news as much. In the much publicized case, it turned out that the action taken by the Institute on the faculty member was not just. He went to court and the court came down heavily on the Institute. Eventually, the faculty member was acquitted though the career of a very successful researcher was cut short. When institutions let media outrage cloud their visions, decisions like removing ceiling fans or firing a faculty member without careful investigation, are taken. In extreme cases, some innocents end up becoming victims. In my view, the reports about the recent suicides in IISc did not have any objective analysis. Blaming academic pressure as the reason for the few recent suicides is as ill-conceived as the plans to remove ceiling fans.

For physical health, there are rules. If anyone cannot work due to health reasons, they are entitled to some sick leave in addition to casual leave every year. If one needs to be away beyond these, faculty and staff could use earned leave or apply for leave without pay. Students are allowed to take 1 month leave. If their physical health does not allow them to attend classes/work in the laboratories beyond one month, there is an option of taking an entire semester off. This would of course delay their progress but gives them time to regain health. It appears that we do not have well laid out rules like these for mental health. It seems obvious that we follow the same rules as for physical health. Often, when someone says they are depressed or they have anxiety and so they cannot attend course or work in the laboratory, those in charge have difficulty in making a decision. While people who are suffering due to depression and anxiety need everyone’s support and care, they cannot be given a degree or a passing grade in an exam because of these reasons. Giving them salary or scholarship for extended periods would be violation of service rules. Whether a faculty, staff or a student has physical or mental health problems, Institute can provide some primary care. Beyond that it is for the individuals, and their family and friends to take care of the health problems. No organization can take care of anyone who needs constant care for a long period of time.

References:

  1. https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/24-6-per-cent-of-total-suicides-in-2020-by-daily-wage-workers-ncrb-data-shows-7596430/ Accessed on 25 December 2021.
  2. https://www.iisc.ac.in/academics/departments/center-for-counseling-and-support/ Accessed on 25 December 2021.
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