Over the last four months, Reena Shah (name changed) has been behaving aggressively. Screaming, throwing things around and beating up her younger sibling — unusual behaviour for the otherwise quiet, well-mannered class 10 student. A visit to psychiatrist and psychotherapist Anjali Chhabria revealed that this was Shah’s way of coping with the pressure she was under in the run-up to the March Board exams. “She was afraid of not being able to revise properly, forgetting matter and most importantly not get into a college of her choice,” says Chhabria. <b1>
Like Shah, thousands of SSC and HSC students and parents across Mumbai are turning to helplines and counsellors to cope with fears of blanking out, incessant headaches and nagging insomnia. But it’s not revision alone that is giving students sleepless nights. “A few years ago it was only about getting into the Science or Arts stream. Today, while in Class 10, students are planning and worrying about their admission into engineering and medicine,” says Malini Shah, senior psychologist, Aavishkar.
As new pressures emerge, city-based helplines and psychologists have also seen a change in the attitude to seeking help. “Five years ago I would receive around two distress calls during the exam season. Today I get five to six calls a day,” says Chhabria. And to reach out to a greater number, Chhabria has started the Youthlifeline helpline this year. At the Samaritans Sahara helpline, there is an annual 30 per cent increase in distress calls during the March to May period. Helpline director Farrokh Jijina says that the growth has been fuelled by the emphasis being put by educational institutes and the media on the need to talk about exam pressure.
As a result, it’s not students alone who are hitting speed dial. “I only receive visits from parents during this time of the year. There is lesser emphasis on getting children to perform and a greater concern on helping them cope with exam-related anxiety,” says Dr Hozefa Bhinderwala, counsellor and consultant psychologist. Bhinderwala has seen a 20 per cent annual increase in parent visits over the last three years.
But phonecalls and across-the-table chats are not all the psychologists are prescribing. In 2007, Chhabria introduced the buddy system at her Juhu-based clinic. “An MBBS, Commerce and Class 10 student were put into a study group. Though their exam schedules and subjects varied, their fears were common,” says Chhabria. She adds that the system gave them an opportunity to study in a stress-free environment and encourage each other on. The bi-weekly, two-hour sessions helped 15-year-old International General Certificate of Secondary Education student Geeta Sen pass her February exams with ease. “When you study alone you tend to worry more. It helps to be surrounded by people who have the same goal and common fears,” she says.
(Student names have been changed)