Monday, December 20, 2010

Schools, punishment and suicide - teenagers dying of shame

A Pune school joined the ranks of those in which a punished and humiliated teenager committed suicide. A teenage life snuffed out by the psychological pain of humiliation. It was apparently over his talking with a girl student. He was thrashed by the school principal, two teachers and the girl's uncle. This was not punishment - it was physical abuse. The boy did not return home after school. His father, a labourer, went to the school to look for him. The next morning the teenager’s body was found on the railway tracks.

Labourers moving to their work-site

Behaviours perceived as undesirable by teachers

The chain of events in this suicide apparently begins with the teenager talking to a girl student - normal adolescent behaviour. It is in the stage of adolescence that opposite-sex social interaction begins. A co-ed school would be the ideal place for this adolescent interaction. Yet this behaviour was perceived as seriously undesirable by the school authorities. Let’s look at other behaviours perceived as undesirable by teachers (Borg MG, 1998).
  • Teachers perceive drug abuse, bullying and destruction of property as the most serious problem behaviours. Inquisitiveness and whispering are rated as the least serious
  • Cheating, lying, masturbation and heterosexual activity are considered as more serious in girls. In boys, dreaminess, disorderliness, silliness, quarrelsomeness, and restlessness are considered to be more problematic.
  • Female teachers perceive masturbation and obscene notes as more serious than male teachers. Male teachers perceive disorderliness to be more serious.

Punishment in schools

In the next step of the chain of events the teenager was punished for his normal adolescent behaviour.

Punishment is the application of an adverse stimulus after an unacceptable behaviour has occurred. The goal is to reduce the probability that the behaviour will recur. However, punishment, especially in public will also result in loss of self-esteem and humiliation. Public humiliation is known to promote further aggression - not reduce it.

In a school system there are better ways to induce behavioural change while preserving the child’s dignity. All behavioural measures start with defining the problem behaviour. Talking to a girl-student in a co-ed school is only problem behaviour when it is viewed on social class lines. School authorities and teachers need to realise their role as promoters and nurturers of responsible freedom and equality. As educators they need to go beyond their own personal biases.


A major interpersonal risk factor for suicide in India is humiliation (Bhatia et al, 1987). Humiliation is strongly related to aggressive behaviour. Suicide is nothing other than aggression turned inward (Freud. 1919). Middle class status protects the individual against aggression when humiliated (Aslund et al, 2009). That protection was not available for this lower socio-economic status labourer's son.

The outskirts of Pune are a churn of economic activity sucking in people with the promise of opportunity for work. In the mornings the roads from surrounding villages are lined by labourers walking with tiffin in hand to the nearest transport hub. Many among these house their families in one room shacks. It is a tribute to our system that at least for some among them the education of their children in a proper school is not just a dream. It is a shame on us that ten years of education and commitment of parents and the state can be cut short by insensitive punishment and humiliation by parents and educators. One labourer’s child died of that shame.


  1. Aslund C, Starrin B, Leppert J, Nilsson KW. Social status and shaming experiences related to adolescent overt aggression at school. Aggress Behav. 2009 Jan-Feb; 35(1):1-13.
  2. Bhatia SC, Khan MH, Mediratta RP, Sharma A. High risk suicide factors across cultures. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 1987 Autumn; 33(3):226-36.
  3. Borg MG. Secondary school teachers' perception of pupils' undesirable behaviours. Br J Educ Psychol. 1998 Mar; 68 (Pt 1):67-79.
  4. Freud S. Mourning and Melancholia. 1919