India’s youth is pushed into participating in a rat race for entry into engineering and medical colleges, which is a whirlpool of broken dreams and identities. Students are groomed to prepare for entrance exams like NEET and JEE, from very young ages. Parents spend lakhs on coaching institutions that enrol children as young as ten years old. The journey to top medical and engineer colleges is filled with cutthroat competition and sleepless nights devoid of age-appropriate activities and socialisation. Many, despite preparing for years, fail to crack these entrance exams, and they often succumb to mental illnesses and stress-related ailments. This statement can be corroborated by a recent study by the National Health and Neuroscience, which found that one in every five teens suffer from some kind of mental illness.
At any given point in time, millions of students fight with their peers to emerge on top, an exercise that proves to be futile for all but a few. Society expects excellence from all, leaving no room for average lifestyles and humble aspirations. Performances that are no worse than what would be expected from an average student inspire shame and admonishment from demanding parents and mentors. Students are expected to sacrifice their social life and coming-of-age experiences and devote their youth to the pursuit of ranks. Failure is simply unacceptable both to parents and to students who find themselves robbed of their childhood and their dreams. The result is that students are conditioned to be more afraid of failure than death itself.
Entrance exams are winner-takes-all games where a handful of students monopolise the best institutions in our country. The stakes are high for students and thus, their stress levels skyrocket. Anxiety and depression are common among students, who are told to ignore them and soldier on. Society views health through a reductionist lens, only acknowledging physical diseases. Quality of life and mental health are equally ignored by parents and teachers who push students to touch the sky regardless of their inherent intersects and abilities. Deaths by suicide among students are spiking even as we, as a society, fail to re-evaluate the systemic failure of our education system. Why is it that we fail to free our children from the shackles of our own unfulfilled dreams and unrealistic expectations?
It is important for students to forge meaningful relationships with their peers and their family. A strong social support system is needed for a child to bounce back from psychological distress caused by competitive exams. Students should be allowed to choose their own vocation instead of conforming to the medicine-engineering binary that has been imposed on them. Failure should be treated not only as normal but as a welcome experience that teaches valuable lessons to students. Even the students who succeed in entrance exams are not free from the toll the preparation takes on their mental health. Students in esteemed institutions fail to cope with the stress that comes with living in a high-stress environment, and may even choose to end their lives to escape the never-ending spiral into progressively building expectations.