'I've been worrying about these tragedies for some time now' - Suma Shirur calls for mental health support for young Indian shooters

As a former Olympian and a high performance coach with junior teams, Suma Shirur is intimately aware of the problems young shooters face. SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images

While the deaths by suicide of four young shooters in as many months have come as a shock to many, former Olympic finalist Suma Shirur was already worried about the mental toll younger shooters were bearing for many months now.

Shirur, the former coach of the national junior team, reckons that the individual nature of the sport, the relative youth of the current pool of shooters, the pressure of competition and the isolation caused by recent COVID enforced lockdowns have had a cumulative effect.

On Thursday, news emerged of 26-year-old rifle shooter, Konica Layak's death by suicide, setting off alarm bells in the Indian shooting community, with many caught unawares.

Shirur, who worked with the Indian junior rifle shooters first as a High Performance Director four years ago, and has subsequently seen multiple shooters -- including World Cup winners Divyansh Panwar and Aishwary Pratap Tomar make the transition to the senior squad -- says she got the first inkling of a brewing problem a year back.

Isolation in lockdown

It was when she first started conducting online classes at her academy during the first lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. "I've been worrying about these tragedies for some time now. Having been with the Indian junior team, I'm seeing younger and younger children coming into shooting. However, I'm now also seeing an increasing number of confused shooters. I've been seeing this a lot more after the second lockdown (in April) this year," she says.

"During the lockdown, I started online classes for shooters at my academy, so that we could keep in touch. I started realizing that the questions I was getting were not related to shooting. There were a growing number of shooters who were confused and looked like they had lost direction. That's when I felt there was something deeper going on. After one-and-a-half years it's clear to me that it's not enough to have online classes. The problem we were dealing with was not about sport," Shirur says.

As a consequence, Shirur says, she hired a psychologist. "It's been a great help so far. I think all my athletes have a happy face but honestly you don't really know what what's going on underneath."

Young shooters at risk

Shirur says the nature of the sport and the increasing proportion of younger athletes don't help. "Shooting is a very individual sport and can make you locked in. That's why I don't encourage people to shoot by themselves at home. They need to be around people of their age. By itself, the sport can make you very isolated," she says.

"It's alarming. Compared to older experienced shooters, youngsters are worse off when they are confined indoors. The first lockdown was ok. However, the second lockdown made things get a lot worse. Especially for younger shooters, not having competitions, or systematic training, is extremely detrimental to mental health.

Youngsters, at large, are at a stage where they are slowly getting a sense of self-worth and self-image. They are moving towards achieving direction/purpose in their life. It's a vulnerable age. They share that with other kids their age, who are going through something similar. They gel with them. If you take them out of that sort of environment, they are often lost," she says.

Lack of mental support at grassroots level

Shirur says the problem is not exclusively an Indian one. "At the nationals, a lot of coaches were talking about it. I've spoken to coaches in Germany and their young athletes are dealing with this issue as well," she says. However, while those athletes might benefit from critical mental health support, it's often lacking in India - outside the elite level.

"Shooting is predominantly a mental sport. Even in the Indian team a lot of shooters use psychologists in an individual capacity. But at the grassroots level, where it's really needed, not everyone can afford to or has the means to reach out to such help," Shirur says. "Especially in recent times, money has been tight across the board. It was a significant expense for our academy to hire a psychologist and I'm sure it's an expense not everyone will be able to make but it's something that is really important," she says.

Immediate solutions

The immediate step needed, according to Shirur, is for there to be mental health support at every level at the sport. "There need to be counselors who students can open up to. The responsibility lies with everyone - parents, the places these kids stay, where they train and even the associations," she says.

While Shirur hopes for the best, she isn't unaware of the huge obstacles to overcome. "For a lot of young shooters, the sport isn't something that gives them joy. Yet, they have put all their eggs in one basket. I think parents need to realise this as well. I see children who have been pushed to win every competition they go to. That's terrible. We see winners but there is a whole other side that needs to be addressed," she says.

While solutions need to be implemented immediately, Shirur doesn't think the problem will go away anytime soon. "This is not temporary issue we are dealing with. A lot of youngsters have been dealing with this isolation for nearly two years now. It's not a small amount of time. For this batch of shooters, it's going to take a long time to recover," she says.