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. 

Death, etc.

Of late I’ve been smelling a lot of Ethyl Mercaptan in the kitchen. Especially in the fridge. I must point out that the architeture of my kitchen is such that the gas cylinder is placed right next to the fridge. But then, there is a thick wall and a door in between, so I fail to understand why the  mercaptan smell emanates from the fridge.

I’ve never been good at the business of connecting the regulator to the gas stove. In over fifteen years of gas usage (prior to that we didn’t have gas stove at home – parents worked for the electricity board and hence we had free electricity; so we used electric stove) I’ve somehow managed to avoid any sort of mishaps. Of course for the first half of those fifteen years I wasn’t really allowed close to the cylinder.

Sometimes I go mad, and think I must apply for the Darwin award. Yes, this is connected to what I’ve written in the earlier part of this essay. My normal reaction when I smell Ethyl Mercaptan in the kitchen is to pick up the lighter and strike it. That is my normal way of convincing myself that there is indeed no gas leak, and the smell is due to some internal demons in my head. Of course, if it indeed turns out that there was a gas leak, then I’ll surely get a posthumous Darwin awards, right? (as far as I know I haven’t impregnated anyone, so my genes will become extinct)

The downside of this process is that if I indeed die this way, and thus stake my claim at the Darwin awards, I will be classified as a “stove burst” case and get reported on the page three of all newspapers in the “crime beat” section. The story will be preceded by that of a man dying in a motorcycle accident, and will be succeeded by that of a woman filing a dowry harassment case against her in-laws. The problem with “stove burst” (despite the Darwin award) is that it’s such a womanly way to die. Have you ever read in the paper, either on Page 3 or otherwise, that a man died in a stove-burst?

It’s only women who die in stove bursts. And typically it is very weak women. Women trapped in bad marriages, with in-laws demanding tonnes of dowry. “Stove burst” is a convenient excuse for the woman’s death – it would in most cases be murder or suicide. Stove burst is definitely not a manly way to die. There are several other honourable bursts from which men die. Sher Shah Suri, they say, died when a gun burst in his face (during the siege of Kalinjar in 1545, if my JNU-authored NCERT textbook is to be believed). Tycho Brahe, on the other hand, died when his own bladder burst (he was at a royal dinner and felt it wasn’t done to excuse himself). Those are manly ways to die, not stove bursts. So maybe I should give up on the Darwin award, after all.

While on the topic, I’ve been kicking buckets quite often nowadays. I have lots of buckets at home, like any good Indian should. But unlike most good Indians, I don’t take good care of my buckets and leave them lying around in the pathways. Now that I don’t have any relatives in any electricity board, I try to conserve electricity, and so leave most of the lights off. And hence keep kicking the bucket. Each time I kick a bucket, I just lift it up (it would’ve usually toppled) and keep it to the side, unmindful that there is a very good chance that my next random walk will encounter it. And I kick the bucket again. And again.