Elite institutions and mental illness

At the Aditya Birla scholarship function last night, I met an old professor, who happened to remember me. We were exchanging emails today and he happened to ask me about one of my classmates, who passed away last year. In reply to him I went off on a long rant about the incidence of mental illness in institutions such as IIT. Some of what I wrote, I thought, deserved a wider audience, so I’m posting an edited version here. I’ve edited out people’s names to protect their privacy. 

<name blanked out 1> passed away a year and a half back. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was also suffering from depression, and he committed suicide. He had been living in Bangalore in his last days, working with an IT company here. I had invited him for my wedding a couple of months before that, but had got no response from him.
He was the third person that our 30-odd strong Computer Science class from IIT Madras lost. Prior to that another of our classmates had killed himself, and he too was known to be suffering from some form of mental illness. The third was a victim of a motorcycle accident.
I’m quite concerned about the incidence of mental illness among elite students. From my IIT Madras Computer Science class alone, I know at least six people who at some point of time or the other have been diagnosed with mental illness. I myself have been under treatment for depression and ADHD since January this year. And I don’t think our class is a particularly skewed sample.
I think this is a manner of great concern, and doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. I don’t know if there are some systemic issues that are causing this, but losing graduates of elite institutions to mental illness is I think a gross wastage of resources! I don’t know what really needs to be done, but I think one thing that is certainly going to help is to set up on-campus psychiatric and counselling services (manned by trained professionals; I know IIT Madras has a notional “guidance and counselling unit” but I’m not sure what kind of counseling they’re really capable of) , and to encourage students to seek help when they sense a problem.
Of course, there are other constraints at play here – firstly there is a shortage of trained psychiatrists in India. I remember reading a report somewhere that compared to international standards, India has only one third of the number of psychiatrists it requires. More importantly, there is the social stigma related to mental illness which prevents people from seeking professional help (I must admit that I faced considerable opposition from my own family when I wanted to consult a psychiatrist), and sometimes by the time people do get help, irreparable damage might have been done in terms of career. Having read up significantly on mental illnesses for a few months now, and looking back at my own life, I think I had been depressed ever since 2000, when I joined IIT. And it took over 11 years before I sought help and got it diagnosed. Nowadays, I try to talk about my mental illness in public forums, to try and persuade people that there is nothing shameful in being mentally ill, and to encourage them to seek help as soon as possible when they think they have a problem.
I’m really sorry I’ve gone off on a tangent here but this is a topic that I feel very strongly about, and got reminded about when I started thinking about <name blanked out 1>….
I know that several universities abroad offer free psychiatric support to students, and I know a number of friends who have taken advantage of such programs and gotten themselves diagnosed, and are leading significantly better lives now. I don’t really know how to put it concisely but if you think you suffer from some mental illness, I do encourage you to put aside the stigmas of yourself and your family, and go ahead and seek help. 


Vinod Ganesh is popularly known as MENSA, in Chennai quizzing and other circles. He attained his MENSA membership sometime in 2003-04. The exam (yeah, since it’s a high IQ society, you need to pass an exam to join) was sometime in late 2003 or early 2004, and the results arrived during Saarang 2004. Thinking back, there is a possibility that the nickname could have been mine (though “Wimpy” was well-established by then). I’d also taken the same exam on the same day as Vinod did, and had cracked it. It remains one of the turning points in my life.

I was studying Computer Science at IIT Madras, and was in my final year of the course. Most of the class wanted to go to the US to do their masters, and along came a rumour (possibly substantiated given how universities in America work) that membership of elite clubs such as MENSA was a good bullet point that might enable admission, and offers of aid. Most of my classmates had signed up enthusiastically. The rumour had misled me, in the sense that I had assumed there was little to the exam apart from a bullet point for foreign apps, and had stayed away.

It was a Saturday, and the entrance test was going to happen over three sessions. MENSA entrance is one of those tests where they “recycle” question papers – the papers are taken back at the end of the test, and given out to the next batch. The nature of questions allows them to do this – they are mostly pattern recognition, and are quite hard to “describe” in the absence of the question paper. Sometimes someone else who took the test prior to you would have made marks on the question paper, but it is best you disregard them, for you never know how well they’ve done.

Friends who had written the test in the first batch told me that it was a tough exam. That it was all about pattern recognition and stuff. They also mentioned that for the third session, seats weren’t filled up and they were still taking on-the-spot registrations. I think the entrance fee was a hundred bucks or so, and I made a spur of the moment decision to write the test.

IIT was a hard time for me. For most of my time there, my confidence was at an all-time low. Except for one term, I never did well in academics. Extra curricular activities also floundered, and I would find myself wasting phenomenal amounts of time. I had developed a fear that I wasn’t good enough, and it was feeding onto itself and making things worse. Given my indifferent performances both in class and outside, my peers, too, didn’t have too much respect for me (IIT is strictly meritocratic that way, I must tell you), and that only contributed to my self-doubt. Given that I was going to graduate soon, I knew I needed a stimulus to break out of my rut, and so far hadn’t figured a way out.

MENSA, the exam that I had enrolled for in the last minute, unexpectedly proved to provide the stimulus. It turned out that in my entire Computer Science class (most of whom were double digit rankers in the IIT-JEE, and half of whom had better CGPAs than me), I was the only person to have qualified the MENSA test. I remember a couple of others coming close. Most, including a number of the top rankers in class, hadn’t even come close to qualifying. If my confidence levels were higher earlier, I might have yelled out a “howzzat”. In the event, I didn’t require it, since the success in the exam was enough of a stimulus for me to do well in CAT, which followed, and generally break out of the rut.

In the event, I ended up not joining MENSA. I got a letter asking me to come for a welcome party, where I had to pay a fee to become a lifetime member of MENSA Chennai. I knew I was going to move out of Chennai in about three months’ time, and I thought it would be a waste to become a life member of the Chennai chapter. I remember writing to the Bangalore chapter after I moved back, but the responses were vague, and I never joined. That letter from MENSA which declares my success in the examination, though, sits proudly in my “certificates folder”. And for some three years hence, the fact that I had cracked the MENSA entrance test had adorned my resume.

I’ve never been an “RG” (IIT term for someone who doesn’t hesitate to pull others back in order to get ahead of them), but in this one situation, I had taken great pleasure in my classmates’ failure to qualify for MENSA. For a good reason, I think, since that was responsible in setting me off on a successful run that would last close to two years.

On Learning At Home

Recently, India has enacted this Right To Education Law, one of whose provisions dictates that schools must reserve at least 25% of seats for kids from economically backward communities. This post will be tangential and will not be trying to examine the merits and demerits of the law.

So earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal published a long (and pretty good) analysis of the impact of the law (it was published in India in Mint). While I might discuss the rest of the article in another post, the paragraph that caught my eye was this one:

Sumit’s father and many of the poorer parents are troubled by the fact that their own limited literacy prevents them from helping. Some wealthy parents, meanwhile, chafe at the slowed pace of learning. They have suggested segregating the poor kids.

Made me wonder how much primary learning actually happens in school, and how much happens at home. Looking back at my own childhood, I learnt most of my “concepts” at home, and before any subject was taught in school I was well prepared for it. In fact, I would be so ahead of my class that I’d frequently get bored, and would think that my classmates were dumb because they weren’t able to keep pace with me.

My parents were no “tiger parents“. And I wasn’t a particularly industrious child. Of course, there would be times when my parents would make me recite tables of two-digit numbers as I traveled wedged between them on our Bajaj Priya, but never forced me to study (until maybe till there were a few months left for the IIT-JEE). And still, somehow, they managed to teach me everything at home. And that proved to be a massive advantage over kids that were encountering the concepts for the first time in school.

Of course, as I went to advanced classes, there was only so much they could teach me at home (since we were going beyond the basic fundamentals here, and there was only so much they could remember), but the head start that I got in primary school was, I think, really useful in my being a topper for most of my schooling, with there being a significant positive feedback.

So what do you think? How much do you think parents actually contribute to their kids’ learning in early age? Is there a positive correlation of kids doing well in school with whether their parents are well-informed, have time for kids and can teach well? If there does exist significant correlation, what are the policy implications of it? Does it defeat the purpose of reservations in school?

The Perils of Notes Dictation

Thinking about my history lessons in schools, one picture comes to mind readily. A dark Mallu lady (she taught us history in the formative years between 6th and 8th) looking down at her set of voluminous notes and dictating. And all of us furiously writing so as to not miss a word of what she said. For forty minutes this exercise would continue, and then the bell would ring. Hands weary with all the writing, we would put our notebooks in our bags and look forward to a hopefully less strenuous next “perriod”.

The impact of this kind of “teaching” on schoolchildren’s attitude towards history, and their collective fflocking to science in 11th standard is obvious. There are so many things that are so obviously wrong with this mode of “teaching”. I suppose I’ll save that for else-where. Right now, I’m trying to talk about the perils of note-making in itself.

Before sixth standard and history, in almost all courses we would be dictated “questions and answers”. The questions that would appear in the exam would typically be a subset of these Q&A dictated in class. In fact, I remember that some of the more enthu teachers would write out the stuff on the board rather htan just dictating. I’m still amazed how I used to fairly consistently top the class in those days of “database query” exams.

I’m thinking about this from the point of view of impact on language. Most people who taught me English in that school had fairly good command over the language, and could be trusted to teach us good English. However, I’m not sure if I can say the same about the quality of language of other teachers. All of them were conversant in English, yes, and my schoool was fairly strict about being “English-medium”. However, the quality of English, especially in terms of grammar and pronunciation, of a fair number of teachers left a lot to be desired.

I can still remember the odd image of me thinking “this is obviously grammatically incorrect” and then proceeding to jot down what the teacher said “in my own words“. I’m sure there were other classmates who did the same. However, I’m also sure that a large number of people in the class just accepted what the teacher said to be right, in terms of language that is.

What this process of “dictation of notes” did was that teachers with horrible accents, grammar, pronunciation or all of the above passed on their bad language skills to the unsuspecting students. All the possible good work that English teachers had done was undone.There is a chance that this bad pronunciation, grammar, etc. would have been passed on even if the teachers didn’t give notes – for the students would just blindly imitate what the teachers would say. However, the amount by which they copied different teachers would not then be weighted by the amount of notes that each teacher dictated, and I think a case can be made that the quality of a teacher is inversely proportional to the amount of notes he/she dictates.

Teachers will not change because dictation is the way that they have been taught to “teach”. The onus needs to go to schools to make sure that the teachers don’t pass on their annoying language habits to the students. And a good place to start would be to stop them from dictating notes. And I still don’t understand the value of writing down notes that you don’t really bother to understand when you have a number of reasonably good text books and guide books available in the market. I agree that for earlier classes, some amount of note-making might be necessary (I think even that can be dispensed with), but in that case the school needs to be mroe careful regarding the language skills of people it recruits in order to dictate these notes.

On Booze and Language of Thought

Last Sunday, I was having a discussion with my mother about my drinking – which has been sporadic at best and non-existent at worst. She said she had a probelm with even my sporadic ingestion of alcohol, and demanded that I completely give up drinking. I tried my best to draw it away from a religious/emotional argument, and tried to draw her into a logical argument.

My mother is a biologist by training (it is another matter that her career was in accounting) and said that she is concerned about her gene, and that given that I’m her only offspring, she naturally has incentive in my offspring, and she wants to make sure that they’ll be in good health, and live well. She also has this notion that if either of the parents drink, the children will be born dumb, and there is an increased risk of abnormality. I have no clue about these matters, and somehow managed to change the line of argument.

Then she released her brahmastra. Or what she thought was her brahmastra. Everyone she know who drank alcohol, she said, had ended up becoming a drunkard and a wifebeater. She gave examples of classmates from school, colleagues, colleagues’ husbands, relatives, etc. It was evident that she had prepared her argument well. And in each of these cases, there was no doubt that the person in question was a drunkard and a wifebeater, whose kids were most likely to end up as losers.

It is pertinent to point out here that the entire argument was happening in Kannada. In fact, I’ve never talked to either of my parents, or to any other close relatives, in any other language. I am in general fairly fluent at the language, at least at the Bangalore version which includes loads of English words. I have in general managed to hold my own in several debates and discussions at social gatherings, while talking exclusively in Kannada. I have explained to relatives complicated financial products, and how the sub-prime crisis unraveled, all in Kannada.

Getting back to the argument, the best way for me to handle my mother’s examples was to provide counterexamples. Of perfectly decent people who consumed alcohol. For statistical reasons and given the way the hopothesis had gotten framed, I would need a much larger list than my mother had produced. And in the spur of the moment, I decided that I wouldn’t do a good job at listing and I should continue with logic-based arguments. Phrases such as “selection bias” and “Bayes’ theorem” and “one-way implications” flashed across my head.

Holding up your end of the debate when you aer talking nomally, and in Kannada, is fair enough. However, when you are extremely animated, and speaking at 100 words per minute, things are a bit harder. I realized that my mother would understand none of the jargon that had flashed across my head, and I’d have to explain to her in normal language. My mouth was processing words at 100 words per minute, and suddenly my brain seemed to have gotten a bit slower. The pipeline became empty for a moment and i started stammering. And my mother started making fun of my stammering (i used to stammer a lot when I was a kid. took a lot of effort to get over it).

Coming to the crux of this essay – at this moment another thought flashed to my head. For a long time I wasn’t sure if I thought in any specific language, or if my thought was general. And even if I thought in a particular language, I wasn’t sure if I thought in Kannada or in English. I had always done well enough in both languages to keep this debate unresolved. Now there was the data point. The clinching data point. I quickly realized that had I been speaking in English, my pipeline wouldn’t have gone empty. In fact, when I was trying to explain stuff to my mom, I was doing two levels of translation – I was first translating jargon into normal English, and then translating that into Kannadal. Powerful evidence to sugggest that I think in English.

I was so kicked by this discovery that the original argument didn’t matter to me any more. I quickly promised my mother that I will never consume alcohol again, and she said “shiom”, a kid-word that means something like “ok what you’ve said is final and binding and no changing it”. So I suppose that is how things will stay. I will henceforth stop consuming alcohol. Not that I’ve been consuming much nowadays – average one drink every two months or so. It won’t be hard at all to make the transition.

PS: Interestingly, when I’m trying to speak in any Indic langauge (Hindi, Tamil, etc.) I instinctively form my thoughts in Kannada and then translate. Maybe it is because of similarities that the cost of translation from Kannada to these languages is much lower than the cost of translation from English, that it becomes profitable for me to think in Kannada, which is harder than to think in English.