A few thoughts on ceiling fans at IISc

– Pranav Minasandra

Trigger warning: suicide

This was originally published by the author on twitter. While the author focuses on IISc, this same “solution” has also been implemented or discussed in Kota and IIT Madras, and likely in many other places.

Yes, I never expected that I would write something with that title, but then, here we are. Recently, the administration of the Indian Institute of Science decided to combat the rising wave of student suicides they faced…by replacing ceiling fans with wall-mounted ones. Several faculty and students presented this as a nuanced decision that will save lives, a well-reasoned method of means restriction.1

With the disclaimer that I know next to nothing about this subject, I make the following points.

First, means restriction is based on Rose’s theorem2, which posits that a situation with more people exposed to low risk of a disease will produce more cases than another situation with fewer people exposed to a higher risk. Is there any data about the proportion of students prone to self-harm? If not, why? In any case, a very valid point could be made that the removal of ceiling fans in hostel rooms can restrict access to an increasingly popular3 and highly lethal4 means of suicide. But was any of this science taken into account when the administration took this decision? Clearly not – the administration has refused to communicate about this matter to both journalists and students.

Second, recently, it has become extremely clear that we, institutions and researchers most often take a most formulaic approach each time an incident of suicide occurs.5 One of the most common elements has been the extreme individualisation of each case, and the stubborn refusal to look for patterns in suicides. After all, what if these patterns indicate that we need to make big changes? Unless there is a very strong student demand, the institute will not take any proactive measures.

Third, academia is inherently exploitative, and will be unless measures are taken to make it less so. As an alumnus of this institution, I strongly urge faculty and students defending such obviously knee-jerk responses to not do so. Every measure taken by this administration towards suicide prevention in the last five years has one common feature: They are uninterested in student welfare. No. In fact, the measures are taken to minimise the institute’s legal culpability. For instance, large number of students in unstable situations are forcefully sent back to abusive families. For another instance, significant numbers of UGs with mental health issues are asked to discontinue their studies after Bachelor’s even when they wanted (and were eligible for) a Master’s. That’s why IISc sent token e-mails about respecting people of different sexual orientations while not recognising LGBTQ+ groups as official bodies. And that is why after each incident of suicide, they will send you an e-mail explaining their utterly limited and terrible mental health facilities, but will never decide to look further into these cases for underlying issues.

I apologise for the emotional tone of this little piece – but the topic we are discussing needs us to be emotional. We, students, cannot deal with an issue like this with the cold meticulous approach of science alone – it is our lives and the lives of our friends that are at risk. I urge IISc to please hire people who specialise in these matters, spare no expense, and investigate exactly what you are doing wrong and fix it. Or – remove more fans, restrict more roofs, write more condolences. Your call.

Pranav Minasandra is a doctoral candidate at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, who finished his Bachelor and Master degrees at IISc in 2019.

  1. Yip, P. S., Caine, E., Yousuf, S., Chang, S.-S., Wu, K. C.-C., & Chen, Y.-Y. (2012). Means restriction for suicide prevention. The Lancet, The Lancet, 379(9834), 2393–2399. Elsevier. ↩︎

  2. Rose, G. (1981). Strategy of prevention: lessons from cardiovascular disease. British medical journal (Clinical research ed.), British medical journal (Clinical research ed.), 282(6279), 1847. BMJ Publishing Group. ↩︎

  3. Arya, V., Page, A., Gunnell, D., Dandona, R., Mannan, H., Eddleston, M., & Armstrong, G. (2019). Suicide by hanging is a priority for suicide prevention: method specific suicide in India (2001–2014). Journal of affective disorders, Journal of affective disorders, 257, 1–9. Elsevier. ↩︎

  4. Gunnell, D., Bennewith, O., Hawton, K., Simkin, S., & Kapur, N. (2005). The epidemiology and prevention of suicide by hanging: a systematic review. International Journal of Epidemiology, International Journal of Epidemiology, 34(2), 433–442. Oxford University Press. ↩︎

  5. The NotA Collective. (2021). On the Discourse Surrounding Mental Health. Notes on the Academy, https://notacademy.in/2021/10/12/on-the-discourse-surrounding-mental-health/. ↩︎

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