Why do men account for less than 25% of the University of Cape Town (UCT) students who take advantage of the Student Wellness Service (SWS), when they are at most risk of suicide or attempted suicide? This complex question, along with others, surfaced during an engaging all-male panel discussion made up of mental health experts, health practitioners and student representatives during the recently held Men’s Dialogue for Mental Health.
Facilitator, Umana Niwenshuti, a humanities PhD student, noted that the discussion was designed to hear and examine men’s experiences. Balance, checking in, compassion, conversation, health, hope, perspective, and vulnerability were keywords used by the audience to initially define mental health, and these themes were picked up by the panel.
“As African men we can talk about anything, but not about mental health. We cannot be vulnerable and admit we need to see a psychologist.”
Zamokuhle Mabaso, a SWS Principal Nurse Practitioner, was initially drawn to the field of men’s mental health by the incongruity shown in men, who would actively look after their appearance and career, but not their own mental health. Mabaso shared about the tragic passing of his older brother to suicide when in high school. “As African men we can talk about anything, but not about mental health. We cannot be vulnerable and admit we need to see a psychologist. I lost my brother, and as a result I want to be able to help others, so they do not lose their lives,” he said. Mabaso said that he has started to witness progress, with men starting to understand that what they have been taught or observed at home may not be as applicable in this new millennium.
A new emotional language
“Even five years ago, male students would not have been as willing to engage with SWS as they are today,” said SWS medical officer Dr Andrew Young, who has been working with between 40 and 50 students at any one time for the past several years. He said it’s about creating a new language in order to be able to talk about issues, to separate oneself from one’s triggers, to discuss attitudes with peers and encourage one another to ask for help.
“If men come from a home without a strong father figure, they often live as if they are solely responsible for their success. They end up cracking. The pressure to save siblings and serve one’s family becomes a compulsion, but it is so intense that life begins to unravel, followed by depression,” he said.
“Many communities do not understand that by pursuing the ‘agenda of the soul’ we will sustain the physical.”
Pura Mgolombane, the executive director of the Department of Student Affairs (DSA), advanced the theme of language and hope with the challenge that while almost every culture wishes peace on the souls of those who have passed, they mostly do not invest in the care of the soul required for a healthy life. “Many communities do not understand that by pursuing the ‘agenda of the soul’ we will sustain the physical,” said Mgolombane. “This is conceptualised at DSA with the idea that we need to rekindle the embers of our souls and rehabilitate them to the point at which they radiate, so that we can flourish,” he said.
Fragility and vulnerability
“At university, the challenge is the feeling that you do not fit in,” said Same Malatji, a UCT residence representative, who said that he agrees that the most fragile thing about a man is his ego yet points out the irony that by being vulnerable rather than egotistical, a person is seen and heard far more readily.
Public health master’s student Enkosi Simelane is a registered social worker fulfilling the role of SWS Peer Counsellor. He also voiced the concern that many male students do not display positive health-seeking behaviours and asked how spaces could be created within the university to help those who are not looking for assistance.
“In mental health, you need to know when and where to help. You can’t pour from an empty jug.”
Reflecting on his own experience, Simosenkosi Tshambi, a SWS Mental Health Peer Educator, said he found that he was able to give others a safe space to share their burdens once he had self-initiated a safe place for himself. “The ‘burden of expectation’ is so great on students that we fear disappointing people. But first we must be careful not to disappoint ourselves. In mental health, you need to know when and where to help. You can’t pour from an empty jug,” he said.
While UCT provides significant expertise and assistance to students, Tshambi encouraged the audience to take their mental health seriously by setting measurable goals, having an accountability buddy, and starting the conversation with UCT student wellness.
Dr Memory Muturiki, the director of SWS, concluded the inclusive discussion by thanking panel and audience participants.
More information about the Student Wellness Service can be found on the website. Call SWS medical services: 021 650 1020, and counselling services: 021 650 1017.
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