In observation of World Mental Health Day on Tuesday, 10 October, Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy, the vice-chancellor (VC) interim of the University of Cape Town (UCT), said the well-being of students is of utmost importance, and every effort is continually made to ensure that there are measures in place to support them in their quest to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
Emeritus Professor Reddy reaffirmed this commitment during his welcome address on day two of the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACUHO–I) conference. ACUHO–I is a professional association aimed at student affairs administrators who work in residence life within the higher education sector globally. The four-day Southern Africa chapter conference was co-hosted by UCT and took place at the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) Conference Centre this week. The theme of the event was holistic student health and well-being, and Reddy provided an overarching view on the support services UCT has in place to assist students as they navigate multiple bumps on the road in pursuits of their degrees.
“In this time of incredible change around the world, university students are also facing the expectation that they must be the generation to solve wicked problems that have been created by generations before them.”
“In this time of incredible change around the world, university students are also facing the expectation that they must be the generation to solve wicked problems that have been created by generations before them. Problems like climate change, gender-based violence, poverty and inequality, persistent health issues like HIV/AIDS, and the challenges of the digital revolution,” he said. “At the same time, they are discovering new personal challenges as adults. And one result [of that] is that around the world we are seeing a drastic rise in mental health [challenges] among university students.”
Implementing a student mental health policy
This was brought into sharp focus after a 2022 South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) report highlighted that an increasing number of calls for assistance from the organisation comes from students enrolled at tertiary institutions.
And UCT concurred. According to Reddy, the primary reasons students accessed the university’s Student Wellness Service (SWS) in 2022 was as a result of anxiety, depression, and academic stress. Reddy added that the ripple effects are experienced not solely in students’ minds and emotions, but visible in their physical and academic performance as well. But the institution continues to prioritise students with mental health challenges. He told the audience that in 2018, Council approved a student mental health policy, which defines the areas of responsibility for UCT’s SWS, residence staff, faculties, students, and prospective students in relation to effectively managing individuals’ mental health.
“One of the first steps was to align the SWS service to increase the psychological service footprint on campus, in line with primary healthcare principles,” Reddy said.
A triage system, risk assessment and walk-in service were introduced to ensure students who require urgent assistance or who are at high risk are identified and attended to without delay. A psychiatric night nurse was appointed to service students in urgent need of support after hours in residences; and a 24-hour counselling service in collaboration with key stakeholders like SADAG was initiated. Further, he said, shorter solution-focused counselling sessions and additional group therapy sessions were introduced to supplement longer therapy sessions, to ensure students who need support are assisted in good time.
Additional support services
But the support doesn’t end there. In September, he added, the university launched a Student Wellness Pharmacy to improve how students interact with campus-based healthcare services and to enhance their student experience. The pharmacy will increase student access to primary healthcare medication and preventative care on campus. It’s the very first time that UCT has a licenced retail pharmacy on campus that’s available to students.
He said conducting regular health promotion campaigns, popularly known as wellness drives, is another important offering. And this year alone, SWS reached more than 7 000 students through various health promotion activities, which includes hosting mindfulness groups – an initiative that reached more than 800 students in the first semester of 2023.
“Holistic health is something we are all working to build across the institution.”
Reddy noted that holistic health takes many other factors into consideration. These include sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) prevention programmes, which are under way in residences; and UCT’s Alumni-in-Action programmes which provide support to SGBV survivors via a survivor support specialist. The aim of this programme is to empower survivors and enable their healing journey while balancing their academic commitments.
“Holistic health is something we are all working to build across the institution. Staff members are also supported with mental health, SGBV and disability services. We are working towards holistic health as a campus community,” he said.
One step further
To demonstrate the importance of its current student wellness programmes and garner further support from stakeholders, he said the university hosted the inaugural UCT Day on Friday, 6 October. The event was arranged in support of four funding initiatives:
The VC said the purpose of UCT Day was to further reinforce a new institutional project – UCT’s University of the Future project – an initiative that is aimed at creating a vibrant and modern campus, designed to attract talent, foster community engagement and support UCT’s vision for a fair and just society. The project will also provide a strategic roadmap to help the institution attain its goals.
“In this initiative, we recognise the role the environment plays in holistic health, by building a sense of community, ownership and belonging at university. [With this project] we aim to make the UCT campus not only more sustainable and responsive in an uncertain future, but also to model initiatives that our graduates can replicate when they leave university to take their place in the world,” Reddy said.
“We aim to have a campus environment where students, especially, can feel a sense of being at home in the academic world.”
“And we aim to have a campus environment where students, especially, can feel a sense of being at home in the academic world. We are seeking ways to respond to the needs of our most important constituency: our students and their holistic health.”
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