It’s hard to breathe. It seems your lungs have decided they don’t remember how to function anymore. Your heart is a completely different story — you can feel it attempting to erupt its way out of your chest, and you wonder how many more minutes it can last. Worse, the inside of your throat is tightening and if you didn’t know any better you’d say someone has their hands around your neck to choke the life out of you. There’s no way your body isn’t going to implode in on itself any moment now. There’s no way you’re surviving this one. This must be a heart attack. It has to be.
Except it’s not. It feels like a heart attack, but this is a panic attack, and an experience that an alarmingly high number of students are going through on campuses of universities across Pakistan. “We’re seeing an increase in both the quantity and severity of high risk mental illness patients,” the head counsellor from one of Lahore’s well-known private universities said, “and although there are several reasons for this, the systematic ignorance in our administrations and in our student culture is a huge factor.”
Panic attacks and generalised anxiety disorders are common amongst the student populace, but just one of the many issues that have cropped up recently. Suicidal tendencies stemming from clinical depression, agoraphobia, bipolar and borderline personality disorder, and even post-traumatic stress disorder are the realities that students are facing consistently. The worst part about all of this is that they are facing these quandaries entirely on their own.
“I’ve only told a childhood friend about this. The rest of my friends, and even my family, are complete strangers to me when it comes to these issues,” a student from a private university confessed about his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
All the students interviewed had similar answers, citing that they weren’t looking for sympathy, or knew that no one would understand them even though they were shouldering an immense burden daily. The underlying cause of this self-isolation within student bodies is imperative to understand in order to tackle the issue effectively, and according to our counsellor, has to do with how students are treating each other. She spoke about how it’s become far easier for people to make distasteful remarks about each other due to the fact that social media has depersonalised our society in general. But according to her, the university system itself has the biggest role of all to play in this.
“In an environment where one student’s loss is inevitably another’s victory, how can we possibly expect young minds to stay sane?” she stated.
Many of the best private universities in Pakistan evaluate student performance through a relative grading system, where one student is scored according to how they have done compared to the rest of the class. The atmosphere automatically becomes claustrophobic and isolating, as students are conditioned to look out for themselves, and healthy activities, such as group studying are discouraged.
Add to this the consistent pressure that families put on their children to exceed in all academic aspects and the lofty and often ridiculous expectations instructors have of their students’ capabilities, you are bound to get a melting pot of severe distress. Considering just these academic factors, it is not difficult to understand why there has been a rise in the occurrences of such unfortunate tragedies within university walls in recent times.
Of course, the system needs to change drastically in order to avoid these incidents from happening, but the way administrations have reacted to the aftermath of deaths — particularly suicides — of their students, has been harrowing. Last year, an alleged suicide of a student at an elite private university was ignored until close friends of the victim raised the alarm. Even after this was accompanied with mass uproar from the student community, the administration was extremely hesitant to investigate the death; instead they attempted to sweep the entire incident promptly under the carpet.
According to a faculty member at another private university where the unpleasant incident of a student jumping from the fourth floor took place about two weeks ago, the events currently transpiring on campus are unfortunately following the same formula. “The administration has been completely dumbfounded with what has happened, and are constantly trying to pretend that everything is normal. Students who had witnessed the suicide firsthand were expected to continue their classes in the same building on the very next day,” she revealed.
The faculty member also disclosed what reasons administrations may have to suppress these issues. “There is a bureaucratic mindset that permeates our institutions, and it makes the people in charge want to downplay issues of mental health for the sake of their reputation,” she revealed, “but in my opinion, the way they are alienating the students at the moment is far worse.”
The dismissive and apathetic attitude that university managements have towards their students and their needs is highly alarming, and it is a common sentiment amongst students, faculty members, and counsellors of these universities that there need to be systematic changes from the grassroots level up, and these changes need to be taken seriously.
“It’s been extremely stressful for me. More students are accepted into the university each year and there are only two counsellors on campus to handle every case,” the counsellor stated, in a university that houses 5,000 students per year. Many universities don’t even have a counsellor, and if they do they are often not qualified enough to handle the diversity and quantity of cases.
Simply put, however, merely increasing the number of counsellors is not enough; there are mental health departments in every university that create systems to bring tangible solutions to these problems. For example, the way instructors belittle and treat students in classrooms is a pertinent issue. A way to solve this would be to introduce sensitivity training for all faculty members before they are inducted. The counsellor continued to state that despite her consistent efforts to try and introduce a measure such as this, she has been ignored and demonised, “I’m too young for them [faculty] and they decide that I am not as qualified as them, so none of them pays attention. The administration never helps either.”
When asked how we can go forward from here, it is apparent that better systems and policies need to be created on campuses as soon as possible. These include faculty and staff training, more educational classes on mental health stigmas, and an academic system that is more cooperation based rather than competitive. There need to be solidified policies to tackle major traumatic events to proactively avoid them, to deal with them while they happen, and to react to them after they take place. At the moment however, administrations are refusing to even accept that there is a problem. If this sort of attitude continues, the problem is going to exacerbate, and students are going to continue to suffer in isolation with no respite.