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This article, like many others, was first published exclusively for long-term supporters, 1 hour before everyone else got to read it.

Post suicides, NLS students investigate, discover vicious circles of “systemic” mental health crisis, 10% drop-outs & year-losses (also at other NLUs)

NLSIU students take rarely-spoken-of bull by horns to reveal academic pressures take a huge mental health toll
NLSIU students take rarely-spoken-of bull by horns to reveal academic pressures take a huge mental health toll

Following last month’s second suicide at NLSIU Bangalore in just over two years, the Student Bar Association (SBA) has produced a groundbreaking report that has revealed extremely worrying statistics and trends about life and academic pressures particularly at NLS, but also at other elite national law universities (NLU).

The SBA has identified that more than 10% of students faced academic problems resulting in them having to repeat a year. The “immense pressure” of being an NLU student, which can also be caused or exacerbated by a variety of other factors, can take a serious toll on the mental health and well-being of students, two qualified psychologists and campus counsellors advised the students in the report.

The SBA called out an “urgent need for reform” in its report, but declined to comment further when we contacted it, saying that the body was currently in negotiations with the administration with proposals to improve the situation, and was hoping for a positive outcome.

Outgoing vice chancellor Venkata Rao has not been reachable for comment at the time of publication.

The report, a copy of which we have received from sources close to NLS, makes for worrying reading, but it’s also a much-overdue and brave introspection by a student body about a topic that is rarely spoken of publicly in national law school culture, which can place inordinate value on ‘success’.

Those that don’t succeed, by those strict academic or career yardsticks, can sadly fall between the cracks, which even college counsellors are not a panacea for.

The numbers: 10% drop out, 10% ‘lost’ years annually

Out of all 400 NLSIU students (five batches of 80 each), up to 45 students have been forced to repeat a year in the 2017-18 academic year due to academic performance, such as failing exams, according to “final promotion list” figures analysed by the SBA.

While detention rates in the first year are minimal and have remained steady at two students per batch, the third year of study appears to be the toughest by far, and has been getting even tougher year-by-year:

  • 21 third-year students ‘lost’ a year in 2017-18;
  • 13 third-years lost a year in 2016-17; and
  • 8 third-years lost a year in 2015-16.

If figures were compiled according to the “provisional promotion list”, which is subject to re-takes of exams, this “would reveal an even more stark contrast” the SBA’s report noted: in the academic year 2016-17, for instance, third-year students saw 13 year-losses, according to the final promotion list, but the provisional promotion list includes 27 students facing potential year losses - more than double the final number.

On top of that, on average, around six to seven students - nearly 10% - leave each batch of 80 students over each five-year course length.

The SBA also compiled year loss statistics for Nalsar Hyderabad, NLIU Bhopal, NUJS Kolkata and NLU Delhi, which are also worrying, though lower than NLS’: an average of between 8 to 12 students annually lost years in their studies, across five batches ranging from 400 to 640 students (see table below).

One of the counsellors said: “It is necessary for the community to be proactive at this time and deliberate and explore different options that could help mitigate the difficulties of students who face year losses.”

Approximate year losses across other top NLUs (based on student reports collated by NLS SBA)
Approximate year losses across other top NLUs (based on student reports collated by NLS SBA)

The psychological toll

Such detentions can take a major toll on the psychological well-being of students, two college counsellors briefed by the SBA noted in the report.

“Faltering in one trimester” can cause loss of motivation due to “mounting anxiety”, emotional isolation, eating and sleeping disorders, self-harm and “talking suicide”, wrote one of the counsellors. The prospect of losing a year “can be panic inducing” to a student and can result in “shame, humiliation, loss of self-esteem and confidence”, making it difficult for them to “bounce back”. “The prospect of sitting with juniors and losing friends who were batch-mates, doesn’t help either,” she added.

A second college counsellor agreed that the “repercussions of a year loss” become “unimaginable” to students, and can cause “spiraling in negative cognitions, getting further demotivated and developing an over all sense of avolition” (a decrease in self-directed purposeful activities, such as hobbies or social activities). This can cause “feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness”.

Those statements are backed up by the numbers: 40% of the 45 detained students from 2017-18 had lost more than one year: 9 had lost two years, 2 had lost three years, 5 were on their fourth loss of a year, and 1 had lost a sixth year of study.

The SBA stated in its report:

As illustrated above, the system of promotion is defective, in so far as it fails to account for the mental health effects on the students. The system is not conducive to the well-being, both physical and mental, of any student. Those students who find themselves entangled in this vicious cycle of repeated year losses find it difficult to escape the loop. This may manifest itself in various forms of mental illness, driving students to the very edge. It has been seen that this may also lead to students taking extreme steps, as a consequence.

But the problem is not only academic. One of the counsellors pointed out that starting out at a college like NLS, adjustment difficulties can also be “emotional, social ... and financial”, which can affect every student in different and unique ways: “The hectic pace of the course schedule, the need to participate in different co-curricular and extra- curricular activities, ensuring that they have a good CV, the competitive nature of the Institution in general leaves them with conflicting emotions and self-doubts.

“They are generally on their toes and are trying to hold all the threads pertaining to academics, relationships with friends, their own health, career prospects, etc.”

The second psychologist echoed this, stating that “one of the most prevalent conditions experienced by most of the students I meet on campus is stress and inability to adapt and adjust to new and different environment”.

Vicious cycle of academic and other law school pressures (via SBA report)
Vicious cycle of academic and other law school pressures (via SBA report)

Full NLS SBA report on mental health crisis

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