What universities can do about mental health issues
I recently came across the sad and disturbing news -- an undergraduate engineering student of BRAC University had committed suicide, jumping from the fifth floor while attending the mandatory residential semester at TARC (Training and Resource Centre), Savar.
Although most courses and semesters of the university are held in its main campus at Mohakhali, all undergraduate students are required to do a residential semester.
The residential semester at Savar is challenging for almost all students. For many of them, it is the first time they have to live away from their families for a length of time. That was the case for me as well, when I attended the university for my undergraduate studies way back in 2003. During the semester, students have to get accustomed to the new food, living conditions, and overall ambience. They miss their parents, siblings, and friends from their neighbourhoods.
Most students, however, gradually get used to this independent life, staying at the dorms, making new friends, learning how to study in groups, playing sports, and overall having a good time. One distinguishing feature of BRAC University, unlike many other private universities in Bangladesh, is this residential semester, one of its major aims being to train students to be independent, get the flavour of dorm life, and better prepare them for life afterwards.
Personally, I think it has had a positive impact on me, coming across great faculty members and all the different activities, sports and otherwise, that was a regular feature there. It better prepared me for my life away from my family in Europe and North America. Surely, most of us 130 or so students did feel homesick at times, but that did not stop us from enjoying our time there.
However, such is not the case for students with serious mental health issues.
The promising engineering student mentioned above, who met an untimely death, is a glaring example of this. According to various reports, there were clear signs and symptoms of his deteriorating mental condition while at the residential semester.
Some reports have directly or indirectly criticized the university for not doing enough to stop this tragedy from happening. Other former and current students have reported the institution being very strict about the residential semester, not allowing students to skip it if needed. This has forced some students to drop out of the university altogether, having no other option.
The authorities at BRAC University cannot be solely blamed for the incident. According to reports, it has an active psychosocial counselling unit, comprising of nine professional counsellors in its main campus in Dhaka. Also, in most cases, it is very hard to predict that an individual will take the extreme step of committing suicide.
Going back to my personal experience as a student of the residential semester, I still remember my first time there, on a clear sunny day in September 2003. After arriving in my dorm room, I met a fellow student, my roommate for the semester. He had a constant, big smile on his face, and unlike most of us computer engineering majors, he already knew about Java programming, and had arrived with a big stack of books, mostly about Java coding. The kind of guy you instantly like.
Unfortunately, he had a serious medical condition which prevented his body to intake food with any proportion of fat in it. Hence, at his home, food had to be specially prepared for him. He found out from the campus dining room, that they were unable to make this special arrangement for only one person. He contacted the university authorities, and after much discussion, they eventually allowed to waive the residential semester for him, given the circumstances.
So, contrary to some reports, BRAC University does make some exceptions, for some students in exceptional circumstances. The problem here is, like other institutions and for the rest of the country as well, mental health problems and how to deal with them are not very well understood. Also, there is much social stigma around mental health issues, which prevents students from asking for help when they feel overwhelmed.
The school should, in the future, take mental conditions into serious consideration, and if necessary, waive the residential semester for them. Having said that, it is also true that in our country, many people take advantages of such waivers -- fake claims of illness are likely to happen from some students who will produce false medical certificates in order to stay in the luxury of their homes.
To prevent that, in addition to having a psychosocial counselling unit, BRAC University should have professional psychiatrists (which they don’t have yet) to diagnose mental conditions and see, for certain students, if living away from family will truly be detrimental to his or her health.
Mahdin Mahboob is a PhD Candidate at Stony Brook University, New York and has attended the BRAC University residential semester in 2003.