I began my higher education pursuits at university about 5 years ago. As a bachelor’s student of liberal arts in Pune, I was promised that this new field (fairly so, at that time) would encourage me to engage with an interdisciplinary space so that I am able to grow into a well-rounded, critical individual. It promised an egalitarian and open environment, where dialogue would be key not only to classroom discussions but also with the authorities.
Since my second year at the school, my life as a student comprised my interactions with friends who resided in the same hostel. Due to the proximity, I gradually started noticing a significantly large and frequent number of my friends seeking treatment for the mental health issues.
I remember sharing a room with a friend who was suffering from a particular form of a mood disorder and had to regulate her meals and sleep for the same. She was one of the most well-read students of the batch. But since her health conditions were not being favourable, she would often underperform in college activities.
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts was set up in 2011, gradually saw an increase in its intake and with that, followed massive amounts of backlogs and attendance issues, largely due to a deterioration of students’ mental health.
A cycle of dialogue between students and authorities over taking measures regarding this deteriorating condition began when a student was not granted medical leave as her prescriptions and records did not reflect anything ‘physiological’ according to the Symbiosis International Health Centre officer. There were numerous requests from students and some faculty to invite an in-house counsellor on campus.
It promised an egalitarian and open environment, where dialogue would be key.
Even though a counsellor was briefly seated at the campus for a very short while last year, until today we are hearing different versions of the narrative of why she discontinued her work on campus. Some say the students did not find her helpful, while others say that the university refused to grant her a suitable time slot and a decent salary. Perhaps students will never know the true version, and perhaps that is indicative of Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts being a private Indian institute.
My intention of condensing a lot of nuanced cases of mental health issues that affected students in the institute in different ways along with the debates that followed on campus was to trace the existence of this issue in the past few years. The authorities claim that the institution is very new, flexible and dialogue-intensive. In fact, these adjectives are also placed with a fancy font on the board of the framed ‘vision and mission’ board that private institutes often display at their thresholds.
However, no amount of this dialogue-intensive environment could be the equivalent of having a counsellor on campus till date. There is enough room for a counselling environment on campus, and the deemed university has a section of funds paid by students as their fee, exclusively kept for an annual health check-up.
As a student, this leads me to pose the first big question – should institutes of higher education not include funds for mental health facilities in their fee structure? Even though I have empirically observed instances where such facilities are available to students for free in certain private institutes, with Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, I am compelled to step down from my idealistic (or perhaps naïve) state of being as a once-hopeful student to pose this question.
Owing to an unfortunate realisation, the latest turn of events in the institute successfully answered my question. The question posed above is an important one and should be interpreted at depth by institutes of higher education. However, in this particular institute, some students complained about a trigger in their medically diagnosed anxiety and stress levels as they attended a course conducted by a verbally abusive and aggressive instructor.
The instructor teaching courses in political science is known to have openly favour fear as a tactic within classrooms since the beginning, but no such case came forth formally. Students have recorded audio accounts of aggressive verbal abuse in class, as evidence. As a member of the student body approached the authorities of the institute, they dismissed the complaint on these grounds:
- Due to the anonymous nature of the complaint, no action can be taken as there is no direct voice for testimony (in the form of an individual) for events happening in the classroom.
- Since only a minority of the students in the class are getting affected by the instructor’s abusive nature, the institute will have to stand with the majority, who want him in the institute.
- Since the students were already diagnosed with anxiety and stress before they opted for this course, the institute does not hold any accountability.
- The accusation is not as serious as a sexual harassment case.
As a student who is sensitive regarding academia and mental health, I am at a loss for words to descriptively write about the levels of the problem that I can see in these points. I will anyway begin with the problem of the majority-minority nexus. The nexus is a part of larger democratic systems also.
However, can it really be applied in a case of student abuse? Even if one student is suffering from a trigger in his/her health issues due to the aggression shown by an instructor, should the institute not take immediate measures to curb such a classroom environment? Owing to the sensitivity of the topic of mental health, those students may have spoken on behalf of many other students on campus as well.
Complaints of harassment in any form invites The necessity for anonymity.
Second, I am very curious to ask the authorities about the foundation on which they have claimed such a fine gradation between sexual and mental harassment cases. There is hardly a matter of grading the natures of harassment here. Rather, even if the nature of a harassment complaint is to be ‘measured’ in some sense, they should take place through the depth of testimony put forth by the student.
If a student has already been engulfed by the fear of the instructor inside the classroom, the complaint has to be anonymous in nature. In fact, complaints of harassment in any form, (involving a victim and an accused) invite the necessity for anonymity. In this case, since there exists an additional power dynamic between the student and the instructor, the necessity should not even be questioned.
In such a scenario, it is a massive attack on the safety and rights of students to dismiss the case on grounds of anonymity. Also, it might be the case that a student may have been diagnosed with mental health conditions prior to joining the institute. However, if there is a marked event which further deteriorates the condition, and the college is deliberately refusing to take any action, the entire responsibility and accountability rests with the institute, and more broadly the university.
A recent report in the Times of India on states that a student ends his/her life every hour in India. The National Mental Health Survey (for 2016) recorded that the increase in mental disorders of all types (mood, psychotic, neurotic, stress) is marked from 18 years of age, i.e. the beginning of higher education for a student attending college, and touches its peak at around 40 years of age.
These reports combine to speak about a social issue that may hold serious repercussions for the youth of the country. With these statistics and a profound literature on mental health available in front of us currently, institutes like these are showing their deliberate negligence towards the problem of mental health. I sincerely hope that the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts retraces its idealistically framed ‘vision and mission’ in order to remember the promises it made to students as a ‘liberal arts’ institute.
I would end by stating why I was compelled to write this essay. Since all the internal grievance redressal spaces failed me, I resorted to taking the issue outside of campus. For all these years, the issue was concealed from the outside world, and we as students tried our best to protect our institute from getting questioned.
However, it soon dawned on me that here, I am no longer dealing with this particular institute, but I am reiterating an issue in Indian higher education and student health in general. Also, this was an attempt to pose open questions in front of the Director and authorities of Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts located in Pune, so that they hopefully overcome their negligence.
Featured Image Credit: Chronicle