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4 suicides in 7 months at IISc Bengaluru during Covid put spotlight on mental health issues

Students accuse IISc of paying little heed to mental health amid the Covid pandemic, while authorities say they have been looking at ways to address the issue.

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New Delhi: In just the past week, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru lost two students to suicide. Last Monday, Rajarshi Bhattacharya, a native of Kolkata and a third-year PhD student in the organic chemistry department, was found dead in his hostel room. A day later, on Tuesday night, 21-year-old Rishabh Mishram, a native of Rajasthan, was found hanging in his room.

A statement issued by Rishabh’s father suggested that his son, pursuing a BSc in research, was suffering from depression and undergoing treatment at NIMHANS.

Earlier this year, on 2 March, a 34-year-old PhD student Ranadeer Kumar from Bihar committed suicide. Kumar had been studying nanotechnology. 

In August, the body of another PhD student, Ajay Srichandra, was found hanging from the ceiling fan of his hostel room. A suicide note found in his room read: “I am sorry dad. The world is not for me. It is too much for me to take.”

In all, four students have died by suicide since March, a figure that rises to five if the date is set back to August 2020.  

Apart from these deaths, the day that Ranadeer Kumar’s lifeless body was found, Rahul Pratap Singh, an MTech student, collapsed on the football field and was declared dead when taken to hospital. Students had claimed that Singh was not given immediate emergency first aid, which led to his death.

The suicides have also prompted students to accuse the institute of paying little heed to their mental health amid the Covid pandemic, while authorities told ThePrint that they have been conducting surveys to ascertain the mental state of the students, have opened a wellness centre, and are looking at other ways to address the problem.

“The pandemic has been extremely tough for our students. We are starting a new initiative on training students to look out for and identify potential problems early so that supportive resources could be accessed in a timely manner,” the IISC said in a written statement to ThePrint Friday. 

“A general health survey that was conducted in April 2021 yielded responses from only 10% of the student body. Therefore, we are planning to make participation in the survey mandatory in the future so that no one who needs assistance is missed out,” the statement added. “Professional counsellors are also reaching out to all the students over the phone.”

Also read: IISc, TIFR, TISS, TMC, NCPA – J.N. Tata’s ‘famed five’ are India’s crown jewels

IISc putting undue pressure on us: Students 

Several students ThePrint spoke to claim the institute has put undue pressure on them and has simultaneously failed to make provisions for mental health. They say the lockdown months were hard to survive at IISc. 

A PhD student, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said strict lockdown measures took a toll. “Since science students need to be in the laboratory as experiments cannot be done online, several students stayed back in the institute. Those who stayed back were only permitted to go to class and come back,” she said. “We would collect our food from the cafeteria in tiffin boxes and eat it in our rooms. A ‘Covid brigade’ was set up. It monitored what students were doing and who they interacted with. We were not allowed to even speak with our batchmates on open grounds. It was extremely unnerving and the act of living there in isolation took a toll on our mental health.”

“Going out of the campus was a cumbersome task that required written permissions from several authorities. Nobody wanted to undergo the tedious process,” she added. “We were not allowed to go out of the campus even when the city had opened up after the second wave. It is only now that students can easily move out of the campus.”

In August last year, Sandeep Kumar, an MTech student at IISc, committed suicide after showing symptoms of coronavirus.

A second PhD student in the biology department claimed that despite the setting up of a mental health service, the aid provided by the institute was not enough. “I take sessions with the counsellor and psychiatrist provided by the institute but they are available for sessions only two days of the week for three hours a day,” the student said. “There are only so many students these mental health experts can talk to in such a short time period.”

A letter written anonymously by the students of the institute in September 2020, which was widely circulated in the institute, claimed that not only was the institute “treating students like cargo” but it is also engaged in “rampant mismanagement”. 

“Overall research output has quite predictably declined during the pandemic. With the exception of the study of coronaviruses, all branches of science seem to be performing badly,” reads the letter, a copy of which is with ThePrint.

According to the letter, students were sent home without any notice, the student hostel was “broken into” by the management, and the contractual cleaning and security staff were treated very poorly. 

The IISc statement to ThePrint did not comment on the letter that was circulated.  

Also read: Brahmins on India’s elite campuses say studying science is natural to upper castes: Study

Doing all we can, says IISc 

In its written statement to ThePrint, the institute said it is “committed to ensuring that the IISc campus is a safe and inclusive space for everyone”.  

“The pandemic has disrupted research and teaching timelines considerably, and we realise that this has put additional pressure on students. Online teaching has been challenging for both students and faculty members; they cannot replace traditional classes in the long run,” it added. “We will switch back to physical classes as soon as we know that we can do so without compromising the health and safety of our students and teachers.

The institute also said that it has set up a wellness centre for the students.

No allegations against faculty: Police

The Bengaluru Police, which investigated each of the suicide cases, indicated to ThePrint that no blame or allegations have been levelled against IISc as an institution or its faculty members in the suicide notes. 

Although cases of suicides are recorded as unnatural deaths, local police conducted routine enquiries and searches in each of the cases to ascertain the conditions under which the suicides took place. The angle of stress due to studies and institutional pressure too, the police said, is investigated every time. 

“In our enquiries with friends of the deceased, we found that the most determining cause is personal. A sense of personal failure. In a couple of cases the deceased had mentioned in their suicide notes that the institution or faculty members should not be harassed over their decision,” said a senior officer in-charge of the zone under which IISc falls. 

They point to this being the reason that parents of the deceased do not file complaints or pursue cases against the institution, the officer added. “If there was a pattern, then there would definitely be a backlash at the ground level but that isn’t the reality,” the officer said. 

During their searches of the deceased’s rooms, the police said, common material found included anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety medicines. “In our understanding of the cases so far, most of those who die by suicide are PhD scholars. Many come from difficult family backgrounds,” the officer said. 

With inputs from Anusha Ravi Sood

(Edited by Arun Prashanth Subramanian)

Also read: JEE scam and NEET ban are failures of the existing system. But tougher questions lie ahead


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