Child suicides, online education and covid: some psychological thoughts

We need disasters to appreciate our strength. Every growth is a post disaster growth. It is true that the current situation can be utilized as an opportunity for correction and growth. It can also, however, be used to appreciate how our earlier opportunities were turned disasters, when we had the chance to do so.

Child suicides, online education and covid: some psychological thoughtsRecent reports of suicide among children have raised questions regarding two of the most important areas of our system: mental health and education. There have been attempts to look at the effect of Covid 19, the subsequent lockdown and online classes on suicidal behaviors and mental health issues in general. However, these attempts need to be understood with caution, precisely because this seems to be all too easy an answer. To reduce the complex nature of suicide and mental health issues to the pandemic or other associated factors seem to be all too convenient an attempt to distract us from the socio-cultural and systemic factors around it.


Suicide is a complex phenomenon which has biological, psychological and socio-economic underpinnings. The effect of social factors such as unemployment on the rates of suicide has been well documented in research. The current treatment of suicide as being just a short term issue is to forget the long term aspects of the issue. Of course, there are situational triggers such as non-accessibility of online/digital classes, for example; however, this should not lead us away from the long standing issues around problems of suicide or mental health treatment in general. These include basic problems such as the stigma around mental illness, poor accessibility to or availability of mental health facilities, underutilization of these facilities, absence of adequate regulations in the field and so on. Unless these chronic issues are addressed, these suicides and discussions around it will just die out after being labelled a “covid related phenomenon” till the time we are in another crisis – another “flood related suicide” in the future, for example.

As pointed out, there’s been a tendency to view these suicides as a “minor imperfection” in what could have been otherwise a perfect system. However, this definitely do not seem to be the case. These children are, in fact, minor imperfections in what could otherwise have been a perfect disaster. As a quick response, there are several projects that the Government has started which aim at addressing these issues, like the “chiri” program. Apart from the practical issues around executing such projects, the major concern is that these will be terminated once the “hype” is over. Such “hypes” and knee-jerk reactions are always useful beginnings, but will prove to be meaningless unless they are translated to permanent mechanisms.

Online education

The transition to online classes seems to raise questions about the status of our pre-pandemic education. The current focus is on the utilization and delivery of virtual education. However, it seems that the most important question the current situation raises is about the ‘virtuality’ of our education in general. Have our students been experiencing what they were taught as real? Had they ever thought that the knowledge they were gaining had real consequences? Or did we fail in showing them this? It seems that the students were taught things which were only “virtual” for them. Did our students really know where sin ? and cos ? (a cliche, I admit) could be useful in reality? Or were learning these only means to reach something else? These are important questions to ponder. In this sense, if at all anything was virtual, it was our already existing education system.

Privileged vs non-privileged

It has become fashionable these days to say that being able to stay at home is in itself a privilege. If observed carefully, these statements are more often made by those who are actually staying home than by those who cannot. Understanding the patronising tone and the power dynamics behind such statements doesn’t require lengthy psychological analysis. This simplistic reduction of the issue as privileged vs non-privileged is what leads to thinking that it is just an economic issue. We see good intentioned individuals and groups trying to address it this way, by buying TV sets and so on. Of course, this is necessary and is helpful. However, this shouldn’t obscure our view of the social and other issues behind this.

The idea of being “privileged” is evident, for example, in the digital classes that are available now. In our clinical practice, some parents have raised concerns about the content of the classes – that these classes address the ‘studious’ members and not the ‘underprivileged’ – underprivileged, not in terms of economic class, but in terms of their learning ability, intellectual capacity or even the capacity to pay attention. An education system which lets someone in the periphery continue to be so is a system which is “uneducated” in itself.

Disaster as opportunity

We need disasters to appreciate our strength. Every growth is a post disaster growth. It is true that the current situation can be utilized as an opportunity for correction and growth. It can also, however, be used to appreciate how our earlier opportunities were turned disasters, when we had the chance to do so. What happened with the DPEP system could be an enlightening example. Not utilizing the current situation in this sense, will prove to be a precise recipe for disaster in the future. In other words, the question right now is not whether we could get back to normal, the right question is to ask if we were ever normal.

(Dr Abdul Salam K P, Head, Dept of Clinical Psychology, IMHANS Kozhikode.)

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