KARACHI: Mum is the word on the death of Ishfaq Hussain, the 21-year-old medical student from Chitral whose decomposed body was found hanging from the ceiling fan inside his dorm room at the Aga Khan University (AKU) on Thursday.
Students and faculty members have been barred by the administration from talking to the media about Ishfaq. Private security guards have been placed round the clock outside the male hostel, the building which accommodates more than 500 medical students. But what is there to hide?
“Ishfaq left a four-page suicide note,” confided one medical student close to him. The note, he alleged, detailed the young man’s miserable life at AKU. The AKU administration’s officials initially denied that Ishfaq had left any suicide note. “I don’t have any knowledge about such a note. The police is still investigating the matter,” said AKU Dean Dr Farhat Abbas. However, when pressed, their public affairs officer confirmed that Ishfaq had written a note late in the evening. “It deals with only the philosophical aspects of life and did not mention anything against AKU or his own problems,” claimed Rasool Bux Sarang. AKU did not share the note with The Express Tribune.
Ishfaq, his batch mates said, was a good student and also participated in sports. “He never flunked in his exams,” said one young woman, who was in the same second-year class as Ishfaq. “Our last major exam took place three weeks ago, so it’s not as if there was any pressure on us.”
As with most suicides, shock prevailed on campus. “Nobody could have thought he would commit suicide,” said one senior. “He was a really good cricketer and was named the bowler of the series in a recent university tournament,” he said.
There is worry and concern; why did the bright young man choose to take his own life?
“Ishfaq was a reclusive type,” said one of his batch mates. “He never spoke with anybody, especially with girls in the class. But since most of the guys from the northern areas in our school act like that around us, nobody really noticed anything weird about it.”
Ishfaq had confided with a friend at school, who also hailed from Chitral, that he was depressed. “I tried to help him,” he told The Express Tribune, refusing to say anything more.
Medical school the world over is associated with high levels of stress, something that students are cognizant of when they choose to enroll. “There’s a lot of pressure on some,” said one medical student, who is in the last year of his programme. “Many students in the dorm resort to drugs like weed to deal with academic and social stress,” he said, adding, however, that Ishfaq was not the type to use marijuana.
A senior doctor and faculty member at AKU said students, especially those coming from far-off places such as Chitral, have to deal with massive cultural shock when they move to Karachi. “It is really hard for someone who comes from a conservative background to adjust in an ultra-modern and hip environment that the school offers,” he said.
Another senior doctor confided that the AKU had started a faculty mentorship programme to deal with exactly such issues. “However to this day it remains only an effort on paper,” he said. The faculty member also said that the school had advertised the position of Dean of Student Life at the school a few years back, when another medical student had committed suicide with a drug overdose.
“However, to date no appointment has been made for that position which was meant to deal specifically with the issues students face at the school,” he said.
What is disturbing for many people is that Ishfaq’s body was not found for two days. His neighbor told the police that initially he thought a pigeon or some rodent had died somewhere near his room. But when the stench increased over the course of two days, he urged the coordinator to open up Ishfaq’s room. Police officials said that they had initially thought the body was at least four days old.
“However, we discovered a receipt from his room which confirmed that he had eaten food from the university canteen on April 13 and therefore, was alive at least till that point,” said Inquiry Officer Zubair.
“It was a horrifying sight,” confided Sharif, a police official. “His body was so badly decomposed that we didn’t even manage to take his fingerprints because the skin was peeling off his body.”
Psychiatrist Dr Mussarat Hussain said that it was “really a cause of concern” that suicides have taken place at renowned schools such as AKU, the Lahore University of Management Sciences and and the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, where apart from quality education, students have access to the best recreational facilities and even counseling.
One of Ishfaq’s family members informed The Express Tribune on Friday that the body was being taken to Chitral after a post-mortem was conducted in Karachi at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre. The police said that they were waiting for the complete medical examination report. They said that the cause of death has been confirmed as suffocation.
Stop other Ishfaqs from happening
The Express Tribune has acquired an open letter written by an AKU student after one of their colleagues committed suicide on Wednesday.
Things would never be the same for the students of Aga Khan University’s medical college from the time that they learnt of their colleague’s death on the afternoon of April 15. Ishfaq, about three years away from becoming a medical doctor, ended his life by hanging himself by a bedsheet from the fan in his hostel dorm. A foul smell, first thought to be that of a dead pigeon or a rodent, by his neighbor Hisham, a student in second year, turned out to be Ishfaq’s rotting body.
Ishfaq belonged to Chitral and had only visited home once in the two and a half years he spent in Karachi. He was academically sound and a great sportsman. Recently he led AKU to victory in the intermedical college cricket tournament by striking five wickets. For someone doing so well, what went wrong? Did we miss something?
Ishfaq was a very reserved person, he didn’t have many friends. Close friends he didn’t make. Despite this, he had a prominent smile that always seemed genuine. He spent most of his time in his room, socialising very infrequently. Rumour has it that he would go through extreme phases of depression, while other times he would be hyperactive and over talkative. And no one noticed he was gone till a few hours after he had taken his life. We were too late.
This is the fourth suicide since 1991 at this institution, involving three medical students and a resident, and the last one taking place about six years ago. Dr Murad, a professor of psychiatry at AKUH, informed the students at a meeting about how after the first suicide planned changes to the academic and social structure at AKU were not implemented in the two decades that have gone by and cost us the fourth life [day before] yesterday. There can be no doubt that medical schooling can get very stressful. But this had nothing to do with academic stress.
There was a marked absence of a social support system. Ishfaq had pulled himself away from the people around him, which is hard while living among 150 people in a 50-metre radius. A mentorship programme was initiated about six years ago in an attempt to cope with these problems and prevent them. This incident demonstrates to us how successful the programme has really been. There is even an appointed student counsellor who’s job description is way different from what she does. [She is] ... most probably in place either to meet some international or local university policies...
To be fair, dorms are notorious for incidents such as drug overdoses and suicides, owing to the lack of supervision and breakthrough independence. The lack of a social support system aggravates this. So does this institution or any other in Pakistan for that matter have a system in place to spot other Ishfaqs?
[In April 2008], Hashir, a student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) committed suicide ... and this wasn’t the first at LUMS either. The student suicide rate in Pakistan has been increasing ...
When admitting students, especially those living in dorms, risk assessments should be carried out and be repeated every year in an attempt to prevent such happenings. Groups of students should be selected from different geographical areas instead of having just one or two [from one particular area]. This ensures [that as] colleagues [they are] more likely to be at the same wavelength and [form] a better social support system.
I would ask everyone to pray for Ishfaq and for his family to have the strength to cope with their loss.
This comment has been edited for clarity