Elite institutions and mental illness

At the Aditya Birla scholarship function last night, I met an old professor, who happened to remember me. We were exchanging emails today and he happened to ask me about one of my classmates, who passed away last year. In reply to him I went off on a long rant about the incidence of mental illness in institutions such as IIT. Some of what I wrote, I thought, deserved a wider audience, so I’m posting an edited version here. I’ve edited out people’s names to protect their privacy. 

<name blanked out 1> passed away a year and a half back. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was also suffering from depression, and he committed suicide. He had been living in Bangalore in his last days, working with an IT company here. I had invited him for my wedding a couple of months before that, but had got no response from him.
He was the third person that our 30-odd strong Computer Science class from IIT Madras lost. Prior to that another of our classmates had killed himself, and he too was known to be suffering from some form of mental illness. The third was a victim of a motorcycle accident.
I’m quite concerned about the incidence of mental illness among elite students. From my IIT Madras Computer Science class alone, I know at least six people who at some point of time or the other have been diagnosed with mental illness. I myself have been under treatment for depression and ADHD since January this year. And I don’t think our class is a particularly skewed sample.
I think this is a manner of great concern, and doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. I don’t know if there are some systemic issues that are causing this, but losing graduates of elite institutions to mental illness is I think a gross wastage of resources! I don’t know what really needs to be done, but I think one thing that is certainly going to help is to set up on-campus psychiatric and counselling services (manned by trained professionals; I know IIT Madras has a notional “guidance and counselling unit” but I’m not sure what kind of counseling they’re really capable of) , and to encourage students to seek help when they sense a problem.
Of course, there are other constraints at play here – firstly there is a shortage of trained psychiatrists in India. I remember reading a report somewhere that compared to international standards, India has only one third of the number of psychiatrists it requires. More importantly, there is the social stigma related to mental illness which prevents people from seeking professional help (I must admit that I faced considerable opposition from my own family when I wanted to consult a psychiatrist), and sometimes by the time people do get help, irreparable damage might have been done in terms of career. Having read up significantly on mental illnesses for a few months now, and looking back at my own life, I think I had been depressed ever since 2000, when I joined IIT. And it took over 11 years before I sought help and got it diagnosed. Nowadays, I try to talk about my mental illness in public forums, to try and persuade people that there is nothing shameful in being mentally ill, and to encourage them to seek help as soon as possible when they think they have a problem.
I’m really sorry I’ve gone off on a tangent here but this is a topic that I feel very strongly about, and got reminded about when I started thinking about <name blanked out 1>….
I know that several universities abroad offer free psychiatric support to students, and I know a number of friends who have taken advantage of such programs and gotten themselves diagnosed, and are leading significantly better lives now. I don’t really know how to put it concisely but if you think you suffer from some mental illness, I do encourage you to put aside the stigmas of yourself and your family, and go ahead and seek help. 

9 thoughts on “Elite institutions and mental illness”

      1. No, I mean, my understanding is

        – if someone’s life really sucked due to external reasons (bad job, bad relationship, monetary issues etc) and if he is sad as a result of that – that is normal and as expected.
        – if someone is sad for no reason, sad for the sake of being sad – that is clinical depression.

        Is that understanding correct?

  1. Really appreciate your evangelism on seeking help to address mental disorders. Like I have mentioned before in messages to you, I have started seeking help too and it is a normal trend in the US to seek help. Just yesterday I was reading a book on networking published by a HBS alum which also urged people to seek to live better lives.

  2. Happen to know one more person – IIT Madras again, from Bangalore. Was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was really saddening to see his fall from academic brilliance to utter despair. As friends, it took us so long to even conjecture that he might have a mental problem, and that he needed intervention.

    Yes, people need to proactively seek medical help – they need to be aggressive in identifying problems of the mind as being no different from ailments in other parts of the human body, and utilize all available components of the health system to better themselves. The though that seeking medical help for psychiatric issues does not make one any less of a man/woman needs to firmly settle in.

  3. Good post, Karthik. I’d add, though, that there are a couple of things anyone seeking help for depression needs to keep in mind. If you go to a clinical psychiatrist (as most do) you will likely be prescribed increasing doses of the antidepressant du jour. SOP is to start with a very mild dosage and work upwards. Occasionally this can _worsen_ the original symptoms, or add horrifying new ones. And getting off the meds is often tough (comparable with getting off addictive recreational drugs). It can also be seriously dangerous (particularly for anyone with a history of substance abuse and/or suicidal ideation) and should be tapered, ideally under medical supervision.

  4. Yet another good post Karthik. My only criticism of the piece is about the concern only for “elite students”. Don’t students who don’t excel academically deserve the attention too? Part of our education system’s issue (not forgetting societal mores) is that we focus mostly on outliers – so the guys who don’t study and spend a lot of time doping on campus or the guys who lock themselves up and top in academics (to pick just two pieces from the broad spectrum) get attention, of different sorts. When ordinary students suffer mental issues, I am not sure people notice at all.

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