Being an Empathetic & Supportive Adult Can Prevent Teenage Suicides

Submitted by Rahul Ajit | Last Updated 22/01/20
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Pradeep (name changed) is a cheerful, lanky seventeen-year-old student aspiring to join the police force in the future. He lives in Bangalore and hails from a family of humble means whose sole expectation of him is to pass his secondary school examinations. Sitting for his tenth board exams last year, he failed in Mathematics and Hindi. Pradeep knowingly shared, “I was so weak in academics that I was expecting to fail in at least four subjects. There is an older boy, part of a gang in my society who bet that I would fail in all six subjects. Failing in only two subjects meant that I surpassed everyone’s expectations and passed in the rest!” Fortunately for him, his parents cajoled him to try and pass his supplementary exams. His elder brother who is currently in college, having been through the same ordeal, insisted that he try and pass the exams, instead of dropping out.

Two weeks later, he sat for his first supplementary exams and still didn’t clear them. Pradeep felt bad initially but instead of losing hope, he wondered how he could do something productive in the one year that it would take him to sit for the second supplementary exam. This is how he ended up at the Career Connect Centre (CCC) run by Dream a Dream last year.

Failing in my tenth-board exams brought me to the Career Connect Centre.” Unfortunately, not everyone gets a second chance like Pradeep. According to NCRB (National Crime Bureau Records) report in 2015, a student commits suicide every hour in India, unable to fulfil aspirations, cope with failure, or find emotional support.

Source: WHO,

In the month of April 2019 alone, we saw the rise of students taking their own life, because of failing state examinations, which would determine their future. The World Health Organisation says that suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15–29- year-olds, globally. As per the Indian government statistics, there has been an increase in the number of student suicides, from 8068 students in 2014 to 9474 students in 2016, the last year for which this data is available. Out of the 9474 students in 2016, 2413 of them committed suicide after failing in examinations.

This is becoming an endemic crisis. Increasing pressures on students from parents, teachers and peer groups to perform well in standard examinations, increasing expectations from colleges who are consistently upping the cut-offs for admissions and employers who only want to hire the best of the lot are symptomatic reasons for students taking such drastic steps with their life when they fail in academics. However, as we scratch the surface we see a deeper systemic challenge. Students don’t have the critical life skills and social and emotional competencies to deal with failure. Moreover, parents and educators don’t exhibit the skills needed to support children and students who are struggling with anxiety and stresses of not performing well in examinations. Educators are worried about their students not performing well and end up coaching them by taking extra classes for months before the exams. In turn, they fail to address what life could be like, in the eventuality of them not passing examinations. With parents and family members setting high expectations for students, failing them leads to students unable to live with the shame and guilt.

When Pradeep failed his 10th grade examinations, his friends told him about the Career Connect Centre (CCC). The CCC is home to young people between the ages of 14 and 23, who are either shunned by systems and families, having failed examinations or are lost and clueless about their future or are looking for a supportive peers to hang out with. Through various skill development programmes, the centre helps young people develop skills needed for the job market but more importantly help build their identities, own their stories and make meaningful and purposeful transition to adulthood. For Pradeep, this was a whole new world.

While Pradeep had made peace with the fact that he had failed two subjects, the guilt and shame of failure stayed deeply entrenched within him. Friends and those very close to him hurt him deeply, by their words and actions, by referring to him as a failure. His mother called him a failure when she was irritated and then tried to smooth it over and make up for it, by lovingly asking him to have some food.
The facilitators shared, “Pradeep was struggling with his own identity, and how his friends and family recognise him as someone who has failed. On the outside, he put up a brave front and didn’t show that this is affecting him, but during vulnerable moments he shared how their taunts made him feel low.

Young people like Pradeep have multiple ups and downs in their life which can be overwhelming and not having supportive adults could push them to sometimes take drastic steps.” says another facilitator at the Career Connect Centre.

In our work with young people like Pradeep, we have learnt that they are seeking emotionally safe spaces where they can be themselves; they are seeking authentic adult relationships based on trust, empathy, love, care and non-judgmental attitudes and they are seeking acceptance and validation. Hence, while we offer various skill development programmes as a hook for young people to come into the centre, the approach uses empathy-based pedagogies to build healthy, trust-worthy and safe relationships between facilitators and young people.

Pradeep found it refreshing to come into a space where his feelings were heard and found acceptance from the facilitators. He was not treated like a failure. It was a whole new experience for him and he embraced it wholeheartedly. The facilitators say, “When we open the doors at nine, every morning, Pradeep is waiting, and he is at the Centre till we shut the doors, at the end of the day.

Before coming to the Centre, he didn’t have an adult who had the time to listen to him and encourage him to invest in himself and his dreams. While his father was busy trying to make ends meet and his mother was ensuring that Pradeep was fed and clothed, there was nobody giving him space to express what he was feeling. At the Centre, he was met with not one but many caring facilitators who validated what he was going through and held space for him as he overcame his feelings of dejection and transformed them into something optimistic.

Soon, Pradeep learnt to accept his failure, overcome his feelings of shame and guilt and learnt to Thrive.
Research shows that children who do well in adverse situations, such as failure in examinations, have a biological resistance to adversity when they have strong and healthy relationships with the important adults in their family and community. These relationships buffer young people from developmental disruption. When Pradeep experienced failure in examinations, it is manageable stress, which can be growth-promoting, when helped by supportive adults. Supportive adults can support development of key capacities like the ability to plan, monitor and regulate behaviour and become adaptive to changing circumstances. By refraining from teasing, labelling and mocking them for performing poorly in academics and instead by creating a safe space for them to share their feelings, we are creating strong support systems for young people. Making them focus on areas they might be skilled at could lead to them feeling better about themselves. Over time, they become better able to cope with life’s obstacles and hardships, physically and mentally (Centre on the Developing Child, 2015).

It has been a year since Pradeep started going to the Centre and he recently gave his second attempt to clear his two pending subjects but cleared only Mathematics. Pradeep walked in to the Centre, with a wide smile on his face, laughing and overjoyed that he cleared that one exam! The staff at CCC were worried that he still had this one exam left to clear and he immediately told them to look at the bright side as it’s just one exam that he needs to clear now!

Pradeep today looks as passing exams as just one more milestone in the expansive life he has ahead of him. While, waiting to clear his last exam, Pradeep has discovered who he is and is confidently moving forward in life.

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