The silent scourge of campuses

26 October 2018 | Story Professor Francis Petersen. Photo Derek Mindler, Flickr. Read time 4 min.

Recent years have seen an escalation in students with significant mental health difficulties. Of course, it’s not only students who feel the pressure.

It is estimated that one in every three South Africans suffer from some form of mental disorder.

This disturbing figure sometimes churns through my mind when I do a walk-through of the three campuses of the University of Free State.

Recent years have seen an escalation in students with significant mental health difficulties.

Our paths cross with theirs at a pivotal time in their lives. For many, it’s the longest time they’ve been away from their parental homes, suddenly having to cope on their own. It’s also a time when there’s a strong focus on relationships, often leaving them emotionally vulnerable.

Many also feel the pressure of high expectations from their families – especially in the case of first-generation students.

One such student is Tshepang Mahlatsi.

The year 2016 started on a high note for this bright and promising third-year law student, as he took up his role as newly elected “prime” of the Tswelopele male residence on our Bloemfontein Campus. But then came the upheavals of the #FeesMustFall movement and he found himself overwhelmed by leadership demands – coupled with the simultaneous loss of loved ones and constant academic pressure. It ultimately led to a breakdown, forcing him to put his studies on hold.

Looking back, Tshepang admits that the warning signals had been there, but that he suppressed his emotional needs in order to help other students that looked up to him.

Seeking help early is one of the main messages of our student counselling. Apart from individual counselling sessions, they offer an array of self-development workshops on topics such as time management, relaxation, and coping with stress. So often these skills can help to prevent the development of serious psychological issues. This kind of group therapy has great value, as it shows students that they’re not alone.

The value of peer support is echoed by the clinical psychologist in our Faculty of Health Sciences, whose sole responsibility is to look after the mental well-being of our medical students. The demands of dissections, autopsies, and long hours working in hospitals – being exposed to the pain and suffering of others – can be a severe additional burden for young health practitioners. She regularly reminds them that one of their best resources is other medical students and doctors. Interacting with people facing the same challenges as you can be excellent therapy.

Of course, it’s not only students who feel the pressure. This was painfully evident earlier this year when Professor Bongani Mayosi, Dean of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town, took his own life after battling with depression. It was Mayosi’s death that led me to initiate a series of weekly talks on our Bloemfontein Campus on various aspects of mental wellness, specifically aimed at our staff. Topics such as “compassion fatigue” and “making sense of difficult personalities” were discussed and practical wellness tips shared.

However, awareness alone is not enough. It needs to be underpinned by solid policies. The University of the Free State has just released the first draft of its first student mental health policy. This policy seeks to redress the inequalities and disadvantages created by prejudice and discrimination against persons with mental health disabilities and difficulties.

It gives us a road map on how to acknowledge and deal with mental health issues. And it’s here where the conclusion of Tshepang’s story provides a promising indication of the attitude of some of our future leaders.

While fighting his own emotional turmoil, this young law student realised that part of his healing was reaching out to students with similar struggles.

He formed Next Chapter, a student-run organisation that gets students together to talk about mental health issues and to learn from and encourage one another.

Prof Francis Petersen is the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

This article first appeared in The Citizen on 20 October 2018, and is republished with permission from the University of the Free State.

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