Indian society, by large, has a classical notion of success. The first part of it involves clearing the toughest engineering or medical exams like IIT-JEE and NEET, respectively. Then comes enrollment to the top management schools such as IIMs. And if one clears UPSC-CSE, commonly called the civil services, that is success 3.0, which gives you a cushy place in India’s bureaucratic setup. The stakes are high, and so is the pressure involved. However, at times, this pressure is too much to cope with.
“Year after year, we see youngsters, preparing for ultra-competitive exams such as UPSC, in OPD struggling with stress and depression,” says Dr Jyoti Kapoor, senior psychiatrist and founder of Manasthali, an organisation that deals with mental health. Fresh out-of-school students preparing for IIT and NEET, too, suffer from burnout due to long preparation hours and uncertainty about the future. In several cases, they need counseling and medicines to deal with stress,” she added.
Although exam pressure is experienced by everyone, do some of the most ultra-competitive exams have a role to play in damaging an aspirant’s mental health?
‘Without a doubt’
“Two years into preparation, I started feeling depressed,” says Shakir S (name changed), a commerce student who prepared for multiple government exams, including UPSC, for four years. “It was this realisation that I had given two years of my life for this. There was loneliness too,” says Shakir, who could clear the written papers, but came short in interviews.
According to Pragati Goyal, a clinical psychologist at Lissun, a Gurugram-based mental health setup, students preparing for these exams are more vulnerable to experiencing mental health issues. “A recent study showed that among those preparing for medical entrance exams, 72.2 % experienced high levels of stress interfering with their day-to-day functioning. As health practitioners, we are also seeing a rise in the cases of depression and anxiety in students attributed to the competitive, rigorous, and target-oriented nature of these examinations,” she says.
Another issue is the high expectations students set for themselves. “In our practice, we have seen a rise in the number of students, preparing for these, coming to us with mental health issues. Among the common complaints are poor work efficiency, attention span, along with a lack of focus. However, these are not problems but are perceived as such. Students, at times, set unrealistic expectations and end up getting disappointed for not meeting. It is not humanly possible for anyone to continuously study and expect 100% efficiency throughout. Yet, sadly, everyone is chasing these unrealistic norms,” Goyal explains.
Lack of experience
Since such exams require one to study for most of the day, it leaves little to no room for recreation. “There is no scope for it,” says Shakir. What is in store, instead, is almost the same routine every day, constant competition with peers, fear of failure, parental pressure, along with a sliver of hope of success, a hope that keeps you going.
“Such kinds of preparations are tedious and prolonged and often pupils hold everything else in their lives back to prepare for one test. And when results are not in their favour, they have to go back to the same routine. It is quite frustrating and most people feel they are stuck while the world is going ahead,” says Dr Kapoor.
At the same time, Goyal highlights the flaw in glorification of being busy or studying continuously for hours, which makes students more vulnerable to mental health issues. “The human brain is not designed to work at such a fast-moving pace, where there is hardly any time to take a break,” she adds.
Away from family
Many Kota-based coaching institutes offer courses to students as young as 10. Students in their teens leave their hometowns and flock to this Rajasthan city with the hope of getting into India’s top engineering and medical colleges. Many stay away from their families, hence, miss out on a major support system. Alone, they also have to micro-manage every aspect of their lives.
“Mental health stands on multiple pillars, and one of the pillars is emotional support. It is the safety net that ensures healthy growth of the mind and body,” says psychologist Goyal. “ Since many students live away from home, they might not get the emotional support they want,” she adds.
Reeling under pressure, students develop all kinds of coping mechanisms—some beneficial, others harmful. For Shakir, he fell into the latter category and involved smoking and drinking, some things he had never done before starting preparing for these exams, he told FE. “Stress builds up over the years, and after a certain point of time, you start feeling lonely. You do not have any way to express yourself, and you fall behind peers, so you just try to distract yourself,” he shares.
“Often students with chronic stress try to manage it with unhealthy behaviours, which includes excessive alcohol consumption, gambling, overeating, participating compulsively in sex, shopping or internet browsing, smoking and doing drugs,” warns Dr Kapoor.
Tyranny of failure
“I went through hell,” says Shakir on how he felt after he decided to pursue the exams no longer. “More than anything, it was societal pressure, where everyone thought that they had the right to inquire about you, that impacted me,” he says.
Lakhs of students appear for some of India’s toughest exams making the success rate extremely low. Take the case of UPSC. About 10 lakh aspirants appear for this exam every year, and just 1,000 or even fewer are successful. The rest fail.
“Unfortunately, we do not prepare people for failure. No one tells them that if A did not work out, there can always be a plan B. There is so much investment on this one exam, one day that the tyranny of failure haunts for a long time,” says Dr Sudipto Chatterjee, a NIMHANS-trained psychiatrist. “When they are exposed to failure, they get exposed to an enormous amount of stress both physically and mentally.”
The problem is worse in the case of those who start preparing for such exams at a very young age. “Nobody asks them if they really want to do this. Nobody informs them that the pyramid of success is really narrow at the top,” says Dr Chatterjee. “All their lives, these young kids have known that their whole lives depend on this one exam. There is no time for sports, extra-curricular, or socialisation, which gives no space for their personalities to grow,” he adds.
Pushing too far
Around 8.2% of students in India die by suicide, as per NCRB’s Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) report, 2020. Although there are multiple reasons behind it, the impact of academic pressure cannot be ruled out.
After scoring low in Class XII exams, an 18-year-old girl from Patna, who was preparing for IIT-JEE, allegedly died by suicide in Kota in July. A month earlier, 28-year-old Blesson Puddu Chako, too, took the extreme step after failing at clearing the UPSC exam, as per media reports. Every year, we come across such grim reports.
Tyranny of success?
Failing in these exams harms, but does success guarantee a life of prosperity and happiness? When the UPSC 2020 results were announced last year, a tweet by an IRS officer, who had cleared the exam almost two decades earlier, garnered much attention. “I secured AIR 66 in the 2001 exam (and AIR 171 in the 2000 exam), and still ended up with #depression and #Anxiety Disorder. There is life, and then there is life. Just make the best of it – after all, we only have one life, this life,” wrote IRS officer Shubhrata Prakash.
As many as 122 students of IITs, IIMs, central universities, and other centrally funded higher educational institutions allegedly died by suicide from 2014-21, the Lok Sabha was informed earlier this year. Not just that, 85% of students surveyed by a student magazine Insight said that mental health problems were common at IIT-Bombay. About 71% of the 450 students surveyed said academic pressure was the reason.
What’s the way out?
Here are some mental health tips for students preparing for high-pressure exams
- Develop a schedule that helps your body and mind to function better
- When studying, take short breaks and rejuvenate. Just 5- 20 minutes of break after every 1-2 hours can refuel your body
- Eat healthy food and sleep well at least for 7-8 hours daily
- Long study hours leave less time for physical activity. As a result, the body develops lethargy and the mind starts responding negatively. Engage in some physical activity
- Find a relaxation exercise that works for you. It can be simply going out for a walk
- Try to strike a balance
- Talk to your friends and family regularly for an emotional support
- Don’t set unrealistic expectations