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What if? 5 student ‘suicides’ in 2 weeks raise big mental health question for Tamil Nadu schools

In the wake of high-profile Kallakurichi case, experts point to ‘copycat effect’ in spate of suicides this month, and say schools must destigmatise mental health issues.

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Cuddalore/Tiruvallur: Her suicide note was written in “Tanglish”, with the Tamil words transliterated into English, and left on the refrigerator. In neat cursive script on ruled notepaper, she told her parents she’d miss their love and wished for kisses from her mother. She told them she loved them, but, “I have thought about this for a long time and I truly can’t carry on.”

A Class 12 student in Cuddalore district’s Virudhachalam had just taken her first test, a Tamil language paper, since she returned to school for physical classes. She is believed to have thought she’d fared so badly that she took her life that night.

Her Tamil test hasn’t been graded yet.

On the same day, in Tiruvallur district, another student also died by suspected suicide in her hostel. Her family alleges foul play, and rumours range from academic stress to a strict warden.

Both died Monday, 25 July. Both were Class 12 students. And both are now part of string of at least five suspected student suicides that have taken place over just a couple of weeks in Tamil Nadu. While investigators are looking into each case separately, the deaths have raised questions about a lack of mental health infrastructure and support systems for young, impressionable students.

The first death took place on 13 July in Kallakurichi — leading to violent protests and major media coverage — followed by the two in Virudhachalam and Tiruvallur’s Kilacheri, a boy in Sivaganga who in his note blamed academic pressure, and a girl in Sivakasi whose parents pointed to her “menstrual pain” as a trigger.

All of them were school children, studying in either Class 11 or 12.

“This is now a cluster of suicides,” said Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar, founder of suicide prevention centre Sneha and member of the World Health Organization’s network on suicide research and prevention. “There’s definitely a copycat effect.”

Copycat suicides, she added, happen when one suicide is given a lot of attention or “sensationalised”.

“People either identify with the person or their situation,” she said. “We know from our research that when one suicide is sensationalised, there’s a 15 per cent increase in similar suicides.”

But even if a high-profile case provides the spark, the kindling is usually already a volatile mix of factors.

Also Read: ‘Blood stains in hostel’ — 2nd autopsy conducted as Kallakurichi ‘suicide’ keeps TN town tense

‘My daughter was lonely’

The Cuddalore student was a school topper in English, having scored 93 per cent in Class 11. She was due to sit her English test the day after she died, followed by maths, physics, and chemistry through the rest of the week.

But her perception of one bad Tamil test was allegedly enough of a trigger for her to end her own life.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said her mother. She’s still in shock, and has taken time off from the hospital where she works as a nurse. She had stepped out Monday night to go to the shops, and returned to find her daughter dead.

Her sister-in-law steadied her. “She was such a talented girl, she was so smart. She wanted to become an IAS officer and work in the agriculture department,” the sister-in-law said. “She was fine Sunday, we spent the whole day together. She was fine Monday morning too. It was only that one thing…” she said, trailing off.

The Cuddalore student loved art and drew this mural in the family home in Virudhachalam | Vandana Menon | ThePrint “
The Cuddalore student loved art and drew this mural in the family home in Virudhachalam | Vandana Menon | ThePrint

“Maybe going back to school was too much for her,” the sister-in-law said finally. “She was fine with online classes. I think going back to school was too much pressure.”

The student’s school reopened for physical classes in June. Her brand-new school books are still neatly stacked in her room, her bag hanging on a hook.

Her mother said she was always self-motivated and ambitious, and knew what she wanted to do.

She was a good student who scored well consistently across all subjects, said her maths teacher Peter Anthony Swami, also the vice-principal of her school, Sakthi Matriculation High School.

Could the widely reported Kallakurichi case have played into her suicide? Her family members don’t seem to think so. They doubt she’d even heard of it.

She liked to spend her time drawing and watching cartoons like Chhota Bheem, and didn’t really follow the news, they said.

Yet, the teenager spent hours by herself every day. She would come back home at 5.30 pm, and stay alone until her parents returned at night.

“She was the silent type. We had no idea there was such a deep disturbance within her,” her mother said.

The student had fallen in January 2022 and injured her jaw — it sometimes hurt when she spoke, which only added to her silence.

“She was lonely… my daughter was lonely,” her mother said.

A demand for ‘justice’

Around 30 kilometres from the Cuddalore student’s house, at Periyanesalur village in the same district, another grieving parent, Ramalingam, has just finished speaking to a Crime Branch–Crime Investigation Department (CB-CID) team at his home.

A banner commemorating his daughter, who died on 13 July in Kallakurichi, hangs outside Ramalingam’s house at Periyanesalur village in Cuddalore district | Vandana Menon | ThePrint
A banner commemorating his daughter, who died on 13 July in Kallakurichi, hangs outside Ramalingam’s house at Periyanesalur village in Cuddalore district | Vandana Menon | ThePrint

His daughter’s death at a hostel in Kallakurichi on 13 July sparked violent protests across the state, with mobs torching school buses and property, and demanding justice. In her suicide note, the Class 12 student had reportedly blamed her teachers for her decision, but her parents have claimed that there are signs that she may not have died by her own hand.

The Kallakurichi death was the first high-profile case in what is now a “cluster” of suspected suicides.

The violence in the aftermath of this case dominated headlines for days. Policemen have made themselves comfortable around Ramalingam’s home, and a huge banner with his daughter’s face hangs like scaffolding over his house. Thousands attended his daughter’s funeral, and he’s got used to the local press.

The CB-CID team was leaving Ramalingam’s house after conducting an inquiry. An 18 July Madras High Court order — after Ramalingam alleged foul play in his daughter’s death — has directed all suicide deaths that take place in educational institutions to be transferred to the CB-CID. (Since the other Cuddalore student died at her house, her case isn’t being looked into by the crime branch.)

“I’ve already told them everything I know and suspect,” Ramalingam said. “Now they just have to find the truth.”

CB-CID Additional Deputy Superintendent of Police (ADSP) Gomathi told ThePrint that it’s too early to say anything since the investigation is at a preliminary stage.

Also read: As fisherwoman’s ‘rape’ & murder stoke tension, TN cops to register details of migrant workers

‘No simple explanation’

More than 50 policemen milled around the Sacred Heart Girls Higher Secondary School in Kilacheri on a sleepy Friday afternoon while teachers corrected schoolwork on the verandah.

The CB-CID has also taken over the Tiruvallur case, but the police in the area are responsible for ensuring it doesn’t devolve into a law-and-order situation like Kallakurichi, and have called in reinforcements from neighbouring Krishnagiri district.

The girls' hostel in Kilacheri where the Tiruvallur student died on 25 July | Vandana Menon | ThePrint
The girls’ hostel in Kilacheri where the Tiruvallur student died on 25 July | Vandana Menon | ThePrint

While the Tiruvallur student’s parents allege foul play, rumours are rife in the area. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes commission had also come by for an inquiry on 28 July as she was a Dalit student.

The Class 12 student did not leave a note, but the local rumour mill is still churning out possible theories for her death — from a strict hostel warden to a ‘love’ issue.

According to Dr Vijaykumar, though, the only way to understand a suicide is to conduct a “psychological autopsy” — examining all the available information about the victim through artefacts or writings they’ve left behind, as well as interviews with their loved ones and healthcare professionals.

She told ThePrint that schools need to destigmatise mental health and develop peer counsellors to engage with students regularly.

“There’s no single, simple explanation for suicide. It’s always a variety of factors, and the final factor can be a trigger,” said Vijaykumar. “A lot of things have to go wrong for a suicide to happen.”

Mental health in Tamil Nadu’s schools 

Tamil Nadu reportedly has one of the highest rates of student suicide in India — according to the 2020 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, about 46 people died each day by suicide in the state; more than two of these victims each day were students.

Academic difficulties as a cause for suicide are also not a new concern — many suicides have reportedly been linked to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for entrance to medical colleges, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) even promising to scrap the exam in its 2019 election manifesto.

However, even younger students seem to be struggling to cope.

“Covid has really affected the students,” vice-principal Swami said. A certified guidance counsellor, he plans on organising motivational speeches for the students at Sakthi School, and encouraging students to put less pressure on themselves.

“Students are afraid. Online classes and tests were easier to handle. Plus, last year, we reduced the syllabus because of Covid. This year they have full portions,” he added.

The Tamil Nadu government is also trying to address the issue and equip schools with the infrastructure required to help both students and teachers.

“As many as 800 doctors will be appointed — two each in 413 education blocks across the state — to provide counselling and guidance to students on various aspects such as studies, career, and behavioural changes,” Tamil Nadu Minister for School Education Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi said in the wake of the suspected suicides.

The department is also planning to conduct plays, screen films, and host literary forums in schools to boost morale and reduce students’ stress, the minister said.

One test, and one note 

The Cuddalore student’s mother said through tears that she always thought their family was supportive, as was the school. Her teachers were always praising her, and she was already studying for her upcoming tests. How could one Tamil test be such a stumbling block?

Her father suddenly looked up from the ground and wiped his tears away with a cloth towel. “Did her Tamil marks come?” he asked ThePrint. “Did she pass?”

No. The answer sheet is still unmarked.

“Oh. So, we will never know.”

If you are feeling suicidal or depressed, please call a helpline number in your state.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

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