• Antara Basu

HOW IT TOOK A PANDEMIC TO REAFFIRM THAT THE INDIAN EDUCATION SYSTEM DOESN'T CARE ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH

Much before the outbreak of the COVID–19 pandemic, students were visibly stressed and worn out. So much so that the prospect of nationwide school closures due to a public health emergency effectively excited us.

I distinctly remember that we were 3 days into the new academic year when students were literally praying for the official notice of schools shutting down. It is upsetting to think that we’d rather have a few days off in the face of a global pandemic than go to school. But it is a fact ingrained into all of us that mental health will always take a back seat to what we call an ‘Education’.


Once the lockdown was initiated, and educational institutes across the country shut down, students were relieved, uncertain but relieved. And then came the dreaded proposal for online classes. And this was an annoyance for us but a difficult challenge for many teachers to adapt to a virtual classroom. And understandably so, plus it didn’t get any easier with students creating nuisance in an already trying situation. But again, as is human nature, we adapted. Teachers learned to operate newer software’s, students usually got bored and opted to sleep beside logged-in devices. And yet we never addressed the status of mental health.


To label, the education system as ignorant would be something that the term ‘understatement’ wouldn’t do justice to. The heartfelt stories of families bonding in quarantine and spending more time together feel as if they are advertisements sponsored by the Indian notion of utmost familial love. But like most advertisements, they rarely reflect reality.


And operating under the false assumption that all of India has equal access to a stable internet connection or even an internet connection for that matter we plunged headfirst into a virtual schooling experience. But promptly turned our heads and offered up indifference when cases of student suicides due to the inability to attend lessons began to crop up.


As reported by Scroll, “Mission Antyodaya, a nationwide survey of villages conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-’18, showed that 16% of India’s households received one to eight hours of electricity daily, 33% received 9-12 hours, and only 47% received more than 12 hours a day. While a computer would be preferable for online classes, a smartphone could also serve the purpose. However, the phone might be convenient for apps, but not for carrying out lengthy assignments or research. While 24% Indians own a smartphone, only 11% of households possess any type of computer, which would include desktop computers, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, palmtop, or tablet.”


And online schooling was followed by online testing. In the midst of a global crisis situation where students are often living in abusive households, financially weaker environments, the cracks in the accessibility of education are clearly visible. With such additional pressure, the question changes from trying hard to survival. And when the benchmark is survival then the focus on academics feels like a secondary concern to many. Yet, the conditioning that we face to push back mental health requirements in the face of examinations and scores, we do just that. With emotionally and mentally exhausted systems, students continue to struggle with school. And the reality is that they can’t afford to take the road less traveled by. With the graduating batch, they need top grades to even consider applying to top tier colleges. The board classes again have the extra pressure that accompanies the tag of ‘Board Exams’. And rather than making lives easier for the students, every educational institute seems to compete over how harder can they make things for students and teachers alike.


The issue is that schools and colleges have been replaced by virtual classrooms but the very concept of Indian education is so rigid that it isn’t compatible with the slightest of change.


In a community where mental health is not only stigmatized but its very existence is denied, people often shirk from reaching out. And students are always categorized as young, carefree individuals who morally should not have anything to deal with, but when the thought of exams in this unprecedented situation reduces thousands to the verge of mental break downs, all they do is pick up the book again.