The curse of being a South Asian student

Published: June 26, 2012
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Hopelessness, helplessness, depression, and frustration is, for much of the country, common currency.

When an eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after suffering silently from months of cyber-bullying, journalist Josh Goodman at the The Huffington Post demanded that not only his bullies but the whole of society be put on trial for its role in the suicide.

As virtually every media outlet, numerous celebrities, and even President Obama, spoke out about the tragedy, the question remained: Why would a young man just starting college, seemingly on the first page of a new chapter, change course and set sail in the direction of death instead?

It is true that such death occurrence’s have a spree of questions attached to them.

Everybody asks why and everybody wants to know how. It is through seeking answers that any sense of closure can be gained by those left behind. But where there is a suicide, the reasons why tend to follow the victim out, leaving the conversation painfully one-sided.

Take the case of Air University student Basharat Khan who was found hanging from a ceiling fan this month. His friends can’t recall any signs of depression. No warning flags were raised when his two roommates left him alone in the room that day. Now, a few days into this tragedy, perhaps Khan’s family and friends are realising what so many others have realised; that there is no black and white answer just a murky grey mix of troubles, anxieties and experiences that were exclusive only to Khan.

But wait a minute, how can there be smoke without fire?

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported 1,153 attempted suicides and 2, 131 actualised suicides across the country in 2011 alone. And then there are the incidents that don’t become statistics. Incidents which go unrecognised because the family refuses to acknowledge them for fear of societal shame and public humiliation ─ as was likely in the suicide of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (EME) student who jumped from the campus building to his death. A death which was neither investigated nor reported on at the family’s behest.

Brushing things promptly under the rug is no surprise in a country like Pakistan, which like many other nations of the East, subscribes to a ‘shame’ culture. In such a culture, social order and control over individuals, particularly children, is maintained by perpetuating the complementary threats of shame and ostracism.

What that means, in a nutshell, is that in Pakistani society what others believe is most powerful and takes precedence over everything else.

And from this stems the individual desire to do all in one’s power to preserve honour and avoid shame ─ a concept rooted deeply in the nation’s DNA, and a topic guaranteed to boost viewership on Hum TV.

Combine this culture of shame with an academic environment that is marred by nepotism.

The soaring cost of educating oneself, the competitive and rigorousness of getting in and staying in at the country’s top institutions, and the general zeitgeist of a society suffering from governmental apathy. Oh, and lest we forget; the general reluctance, prevalent in much of our society, of discussing psychological problems.

Just to take in all the above one would have to pop open another chamber in one’s heart, and an extra lobe in one’s brain.

Consequently, hopelessness, helplessness, depression, and frustration is, for much of the country, common currency. And maybe it helps us all sleep at night if we at least know what’s fuelling the violent behaviour and the dramatic increase in suicides nationwide.

When I told a friend I was writing on student suicides in Pakistan, she asked me why. Why focus only on student suicides when there are people like Raja Khan who escape poverty and desperation by choosing death?

It’s not that the death of a student is any more significant or trendier. But student suicide becomes particularly significant when you remember that many of these educational institutes have allegedly taken steps to prevent the very outcome that winds up taking place, most often on their campus.

Consider the story of Aga Khan medical student Ishfaq Hussain who was found hanging from a ceiling fan in his dorm room in 2010 by his brother. A faculty member acknowledged that at the time a mentor-ship programme had been in place to prevent something like this. But as a side note, till this day it remains only an effort on paper.

So I asked Junayd Khan, a Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) graduate who was attending university when Hashir Munawer committed suicide in a hostel room, why he thought a student may be compelled to take his or her own life.

Khan summed it up pretty nicely,

“The rigorous curriculum and an extremely diverse student body with people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds,” he explained, adding, “it can be tough to adjust to life as most of these students are high achievers but struggle with the stiff competition”.

As the number of suicides go up at some of the nation’s topmost education centres, I asked Khan why he thought it was so and he breaks it down nice and easy for me,

“You’re studying at one of the best institutions in the country. And there is nowhere to go from here”.

Yet my simple, one-track mind still cannot accept these simplified explanations.

I still cannot fathom what compels such a drastic and final act of desperation by some. But questioning is maligning, I quickly realise, as all administration people I try to reach out at Pakistan’s prestigious universities skirt around the issue of suicide, chalking up their preventative programs to me and skillfully playing the blame game.

So, I ask Khan what LUMS did following its first ever suicide. He writes back stating that students were extremely critical of the administration at the open house following the suicide. He assures me that LUMS did take certain steps to institutionalise and prioritise student counselling which faculty members were assigned to take up. Also, student-faculty interaction as a whole shot up and faculty members were empowered to take a more hands-on approach to resolving issues.

Having exhausted my sources and nearing the end of my research I remain unsatisfied.

Shame culture, check.

Lack of intervention into the lives of those who may be clinically depressed or psychologically disturbed, check.

Lack of opportunity plus increased competition and frustration, check.

And, yes, suicide and depression risk assessments make a great component of the applicant process, particularly, when there is a chance the incoming candidate will face a degree of culture shock due to a move from rural Pakistan to metropolitan Pakistan.

And sure, mentor-ship programs along with selecting a large pool of candidates from the same geographical area are valuable preventative measures to reduce student isolation.

But maybe the answer is much simpler.

Maybe all we need to realise and start talking about on our countless daytime talk shows, is the darker narrative accompanying the popular stereotype of the high achieving, high scoring South Asian student. A darker narrative of disappointment, depression, and sometimes, if faced by a failing grade, a profound and deadly crisis.

Read more by Maria here or follow her on Twitter @mariakari1414

Maria Kari

Maria Kari

The author is a lawyer and freelance journalist. She tweets as @mariakari1414 (twitter.com/mariakari1414)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.