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Stress test: Colleges and students are joining forces to tackle the blues

Popping balloons, appreciation activities and mandatory outdoor sports are some ways in which colleges and students are getting together to address signs of depression.

education Updated: Dec 14, 2016 13:10 IST
Alifya Poonawala
(ILLUSTRATION: SIDDHANT JUMDE)

* At colleges in Delhi, students are writing the source of their stress on a balloon, then popping it with a pin.

* At a management school in Haryana, the day begins with a positivity session at which students say something nice about a college mate, and share one thing they are happy about.

* At the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, post-grad students are trained to act as peer counsellors, to encourage students to reach out, vent, or just express themselves.

As depression rates and anxiety levels rise among students, a 2016 study throws up some disturbing statistics. Sibnath Deb, professor in applied psychology from Pondicherry University, polled university students from across India. His findings, published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry, suggests that moderate depression affected 37.7% of them. About 13.1% had severe depression and 2.4% had extreme depression.

“Students are particularly vulnerable because it is a time of life that can be full of triggers for mild depression — the pressures of fitting in at college, making new friends, meeting family expectations, picking the right career, navigating relationships, dealing with disappointment or failure,” says Dr Rajesh Parikh, neuropsychiatrist at Mumbai’s Jaslok hospital. “Caught at an early stage, individual or group counselling can be very effective. Ignored, the feelings could intensify and sometimes spiral out of control, impacting their self-esteem.”

Colleges and students are thinking out of the box to help youngsters identify their problems and open up to help. Group activities, allow for peer counselling or expert counselling sessions to help students de-stress.

“One significant advantage of having students get together to tackle depression is that youngsters are more likely to approach like-minded people of the same age than they are to approach a counsellor,” says Dr Parikh. “The downside is that they might not spot danger signs early enough. So it’s important that all students involved are trained by a professional, so they don’t worsen a situation, and can flag a serious issue if they encounter one.”

Here’s a look at some of the most creative initiatives on campuses across the country.

FIRST POST

At the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, there is one-to-one student counselling available — as there is supposed to be, by law, at every college.

But it’s hard for students to recognise when they need help. And even if they realise that they do, it can be hard for them to step forward and seek the help they need.

So, in 2010, TISS began to train post-graduate student volunteers to act as a first point of contact. These volunteers are trained by the Counselling Centre of TISS in basic peer support skills, spread over eight weeks. They are trained to be better listeners and to refer students to appropriate services. On successful completion of the training, they qualify as Student Peer Supporters and provide a supportive network for students.They are supervised by the counselling team comprising of one full-time and five part-time counsellors.

“We found that some students may not always open up to a Counsellor about their personal issues, but they may be able to share with their peers. Research too shows that students of all ages often seek out their peers first, when they need to discuss a problem”, says Counselling head, Swapna Redij.”This has proved to be successful over the past few years. A lot of the time, the student just needs to vent. Sometimes, he or she just needs a patient ear, empathy, maybe someone to bounce opinions and ideas off. So just enabling them to engage with each other has had very heartening results.”

Even in cases, where Counselling is required, Redij adds, the fact that they had already begun to talk, made switching from a peer to a Counsellor that much easier.

City-based psychologist Sadia Raval agrees. “Identifying a troubled student is the first challenge in treating student depression and anxiety. Counselling is the second stage. So group activities that help students take that first step and start talking can be a very effective approach,” she says.

POP THE BALLOON

In Delhi, a not-for-profit organisation called MaStyle Care tied up with eight colleges in 2014 to bring students together and encourage them to talk about the issues troubling them.++++++++

To make it more inviting, the first stage was designed as a game, called Pop the Balloon. Students were invited to privately name what was bothering them by writing it on a balloon. Then they had to pop the balloon in front of a cheering crowd, using a pin, a nail or even a fist, as a way of releasing that stress.

“The game was designed in consultation with psychologists and most students just grin after the pop,” says MaStyle Care founder Latika Wadhwa. “We observe the students as well, and suggest counselling if we think it is needed.”

Mohit Sharma says he wrote ‘parents’ expectations’ and ‘competition in studies’ on his balloon.

“Initially I had thought the activity seemed quite juvenile, but when I popped my balloon, I actually did feel relieved,” says the 20-year-old science student at Kirorimal College. “The effect may not last long, but at least for that day, I could be positive. I enjoyed it so much, I did it twice.”

From about 8,000 balloons popped so far, parental pressures, upcoming exams and relationships have emerged as the most frequently cited stressors, Wadhwa says.

The next round is scheduled for February 2017, as part of the college festival season in Delhi.

Read: ‘Schools, colleges should have counsellors’

BASE CAMP

The School of Inspired Leadership (SOIL) in Haryana decided to try and ease the stresses of being an MBA student in an unusual way. They got stuents to start each day with a dose of positivity.

“Every morning, students and teachers gather for an informal assembly that we call an appreciation activity,” says Arjya Chakravarty, chairperson of the HR department at SOIL. “Volunteers can step forward and say one nice thing about a peer, or name something they are happy about, or both.”

Students say it’s given them a sense of confidence and boosted their self-appreciation and positivity.

“When someone says something nice about you, all doubts and derogatory thoughts are wiped out and you feel more productive for days,” says Chakravarty.

To keep its students grounded, there is also an annual mountain retreat held at an ashram in the Himalayan foothills every year. “The idea is to keep students from feeling overwhelmed, to remind them about the big picture, and to keep even the hyper-successful from getting carried away in arrogance,” Chakravarty says. “It is also a reminder that you should sometimes take things slow.”

Read: Online therapy is better at treating depression and anxiety

PLAY BALL

The Institute of Finance and International Management (IFIM) in Bangalore takes the physical route to jog its students out of an emotional slump.

Since 2013, IFIM has held sports sessions every morning. This is where students can pick between outdoor sports, zumba, a gym workout and yoga.

“It forces you to start the day early and energised,” says Royden Dias, 23, a post-graduation student in marketing. “I play volleyball for an hour every morning and I love it.”

Promoting physical health, Dias believes, has not given him and his college mates less time to over-think things and get stressed out.

“We sleep well, eat better and instead of sulking or moping, we work it out on the field,” Dias says.

Sanjay Padode, secretary of the center for development at IFIM says the institute picked a range of sports as a way to expand students’ horizons and keep some from feeling inferior or arrogant.

“We realise that business schools are an extremely competitive environment,” Padode adds. “So we give them somewhere to vent, and we have compulsory counselling sessions for all students so no one is looked at differently for approaching a counsellor, and no one sits about alone as his or her emotions pile up. “We think of it as regular mental detox,” Dias says.