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Student suicides worry Mumbai educators

By Mallika Kapur and Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
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Suicide rate rising in India
  • Since January, some 25 students have taken their lives
  • India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world
  • Bollywood's highest-ever grossing film highlights issue
  • Suicide prevention program held at schools
  • Mumbai
  • India
  • Movies

Mumbai, India (CNN) -- Mahesh Poddar can barely hold back tears when he talks about his daughter, Mini, who committed suicide when she was 15 years old.

"I have so many wonderful memories of her," he said, before taking a long pause.

Mini, the only child of Mahesh and Sarita Poddar, took her own life in 2001. Her parents said Mini was distraught about college admissions and had just missed out on getting into the college of her choice.

"I don't know why she took this extreme step," said Sarita Poddar.

The Poddars have recently been joined in their grief by other parents: Since the beginning of the year, some 25 students have taken their lives in Mumbai and surrounding areas, and parents, teachers and officials are struggling to understand what is behind the deaths as they try to prevent more.

"It's hard to talk about our experience again and again. But I do it. I do it for my daughter."
--Mahesh Poddar

India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world -- and recent studies suggest about 40 percent are adolescents.

Authorities are organizing counseling sessions, said Sanjay Kumar, education secretary of Maharashtra state, in which Mumbai is located.

In many cases, the trigger appears to be academic pressure. A 13-year-old-boy killed himself after being suspended from school. In several cases, students committed suicide after failing exams, according to local newspaper reports.

India's education system is based on rote learning, or memorization, with a strong emphasis on scoring high marks. Classrooms are typically places filled with boiler cooker pressure.

A Bollywood film that uses this school culture as the backdrop, "3 Idiots," is playing to packed audiences in cinemas across the country.

The film, released in late December, has struck a chord with the Indian public, quickly becoming the highest grossing film in the history of Bollywood.

"If I have to pinpoint a period in my life which has been most stressful, it was my 12th standard exams (school leaving exams for 16, 17 or 18 year olds)," said Rajkumar Hirani, the film's director. "So I wanted to say something about it. The pressure is killing students."

Dr. Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist, said the message of the film was real. He attributes the recent spate of suicides to rapid changes in India's social and economic landscape, which has led to a breakdown of the traditional family structure.

"In the past, kids had more free time with their parents and teachers. In the past, kids did not have to struggle to get admission into colleges. In the past, kids had better resilience. All these factors have been affected by the changes India has gone through since the 1980s," he said, referring to the onset of the country's economic liberalization.

The suicides were a wake-up call for educators, said Sangeeta Srivastava, principal of Sardar Vallabhai Patel Vidyala, a government school in North Mumbai.

Though none of the recent suicide cases in the city involved students from her school, she is worried. Recently, a student from her school ran away from home before exams.

"As teachers, we have a lot of effect on the students, even more than parents do," she said.

Srivastava was one of the first school principals in the city to host a counseling session by a suicide prevention program, called "Life Is Beautiful," for her teachers.

The program is backed by Mumbai's municipal authority and the Bombay Psychiatry Society. It aims to help teachers identify suicidal tendencies in a child.

Aamir Khan, the star of "3 Idiots," is part of this campaign -- as is Mahesh Poddar. He goes from school to school, telling teachers and students about his experience.

Sometimes, he takes his along his seven-year-old son, whom the couple adopted a year after Mini died. "We were finished. He's rekindled our lives," Mahesh Poddar said of his son.

On his work with schools, he added: "It's hard to talk about our experience again and again. But I do it. I do it for my daughter."

Harmeet Shah Singh reported on this story from New Delhi, India