Academic pressure in the Indian education system contributes to depression in students: E S Krishnamoorthy

Chennai-based neuropsychiatrist E S Krishnamoorthy believes that the Indian education system needs to accommodate students with different abilities to fight the growing depression
E S Krishnamoorthy
E S Krishnamoorthy

In the year 2018, India saw 1.3 lakh suicides, of which eight per cent accounted for students, according to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau. Depression has become increasingly common among students in India. There are several factors that contribute to this, ranging from academic pressure to societal and family pressure. Popular neuropsychiatrist E S Krishnamoorthy, Founder of the Buddhi Clinic in Chennai, tells us more about how we, as a society, can help mitigate depression among students. Excerpts:

1. Does social media play a role in the increased incidence of depression among young adults?

On one hand, social media helps increase our awareness of mental health. We are now more aware than ever about the symptoms of depression. But the other way in which social media plays a role is that everyone puts out a version of their lives that they want you to see. If you think that there is no dark side to it, then you start wondering why your life alone is different or why your life doesn't have so many happy moments. In that sense, yes, it has the potential to make you feel low, especially if people who matter to you seem to be leading very blessed lives and you're not. 

2. What about the time spent on social media? Does that affect mental health?

I think it can have a lot of indirect effects, the first of which is cognitive. Attention, for example, is very important for activities like reading. But social media doesn't require too much attention. So, it can have a negative effect on your ability to concentrate and your ability to learn. The second thing is that it encourages people to spend a lot more time than they intend to on an activity. People often do it at all the wrong times, which means they end up staying up late, so their lifestyle gets affected. The time spent on healthy activities like sports, exercise or even human interaction is reduced. Social media engages you with a virtual community who may not actually be your real friends. If you were to invest time with your real community, you'd probably be a much happier person. 

3. What changes, according to you, should the education system undergo to help students with depression?

Education inherently comes with a lot of pressures. For example, exams — as students are being marked and ranked and therefore, being compared to others. The expectation that everybody will be good at everything is an inherent problem with the system. The system needs to reinvent itself in order to accommodate people of different talents and different abilities. Let's say someone is very good at sports or art but poor at Mathematics. In the current system, what gets highlighted is that they're bad at academics. A lof of the education today is 'one size fits all'. You have to study all the subjects and do equally well at everything. That needs to change. 

Choice-based curricula very early on in life will certainly help students with mental health. For young people, that's a very big factor because you're made to feel like you're a failure. The other thing that really needs to change is the manner of pedagogy. We have a system that is very outdated. Self-learning is not really encouraged. Project-based learning or referring to other sources is not encouraged either. Incorporating all these things into the system will enrich it. It's also important to have other forms of assessment. Currently, it's through exams but the people who do well in exams are not necessarily the ones who go on to become successful in life. 

4. Does unemployment account for depression? 

According to research done in India, one very interesting line of thinking that's emerged in the last few years is that poverty is a risk factor for mental health. Being poor makes you more likely to be depressed. In a way, it's a no-brainer, but now it has been proven. At the very base of your hierarchy of needs are your physical needs, then comes your security needs, then it's love and care, then it's respect and finally, when all these needs are met at some level, you have the potential to feel self-actualised. 

5. Does depression need to be treated medically?

When you treat a person with depression — whether you give them Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) or an anti-depressant drug or suggest yoga — the changes in the brain seem to be the same. When the depression is cured, how the brain looks is the same. Theoretically speaking, all these things can help a person recover from depression. We also know that some forms of depression are self-limiting, which means treated or untreated, they will feel better in a few months. Having said that, there are people who have not been treated effectively or who fail to complete their full course of treatment. This is especially true in drug treatments. If they don't take a full course, it becomes very hard to help them get rid of the depression. The other things that make depression more difficult to treat is one's personality and a lot of that has to do with early childhood experiences, the environment, family and social factors. For example, having a job makes it easier to treat depression, being in a stable relationship helps, having supportive family makes it more treatable. 

6. What would you say to people who advise those depressed to simply 'get over it'?

Everything is relative and everything is cultural. If you take a certain generation of people, what they find acceptable is very different from what another generation finds acceptable. When we are judgemental about someone else and what they are going through, then we're unhelpful because, for that person, it might be a very significant emotion. For example, a 16-year-old who has just gone through their first heart break — it is very difficult for someone ten years older to understand the depth of that emotion. I think that's part of the problem. You need to be able to see it from where they see it. That's empathy, the ability to put yourself in other people's shoes. When someone says, in response to your suffering, 'Oh, it's no big deal' or 'pull yourself up', they're not helping you. One's problem shouldn't be diminished because of the other person's problem. For each of us, our experiences are unique and our experiences are what makes us feel what we feel. 

7. So, what can we do to be happy?

When you look at the genetic components of happiness, altruism is a very important part. How do you exercise altruism? It is by taking the time to help somebody else. So, an important question to ask is, 'Are you doing what you should do to be happy?'. Genetic theories of happiness show that contributing to your community is a very important factor that contributes to your happiness and the happiness of future generations. So, in a sense, you can inherit happiness too.

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