‘I made it because I asked for help’

20 March 2024 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Supplied. Read time 7 min.
Lwando Mhlabeni now works as an occupational therapist at Umzimkhulu Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.
Lwando Mhlabeni now works as an occupational therapist at Umzimkhulu Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.

As a child, Lwando Mhlabeni had a vivid imagination. While children *their age enjoyed playing outdoors from dawn till dusk, they would much rather spend their time indoors – imitating characters from their favourite television show, writing creative stories or reading poetry.

So, you would not be wrong if you thought they’d take up a career in performing arts. Afterall, they epitomise the true meaning of a performer. But that was not to be – at least not just yet. Instead, the field of occupational therapy captured Lwando’s heart. And after four gruelling years, which included a medical leave of absence for a full semester, they will graduate with a BSc in Occupational Therapy from the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Monday, 25 March. 

“Having reached this juncture fills me with immense pride and a huge sense of accomplishment because it really wasn’t easy,” Lwando said. “In 2022 things went downhill, and I was forced to take a medical leave of absence. I had to discontinue my studies because I was really unwell. I lost my professional confidence and needed to take time out to work on myself. It was the most challenging experience I’ve ever had to live through.”

Feeling unwelcome

In 2019, Lwando arrived at UCT after just completing matric at Umthawelanga Senior Secondary School in Maclear Town in the Eastern Cape. They described themselves as “such a confused first-year student”. They said the UCT environment was unfamiliar and very far from welcoming. But they did their best to fit in and focus on their studies. However, things started to unravel during their third year, in 2021, and it got so bad, they contemplated changing their academic programme or dropping it completely. But Dr Matumo Ramafikeng, the former undergraduate convenor for occupational therapy at UCT, gave them reason to stay the course.


“I always felt less privileged, less valued and that the only thing that really mattered was my grades.”

“I really owe her this degree. She was my motivation and gave me reason to stay,” they said. “I did not feel welcome at UCT. I always felt less privileged, less valued and that the only thing that really mattered was my grades. My identity as a black queer person from a disadvantaged background added no value at UCT. That’s how I felt, and it affected everything.”

But they poured their “heart and soul” into their academic programme, and bit by bit things started to improve, or so they thought. The heavy, demanding academic load was difficult to juggle and they struggled to cope. Managing their time effectively was one of the biggest challenges.

The domino effect

Everyone agrees that when it rains, it pours. In 2022, things spiralled out of control. It became increasingly difficult for Lwando to cope with the demands of their academic programme, as well as the challenges of everyday life. Towards the end of the first semester of their fourth and what would’ve been their final year, they were diagnosed with generalised anxiety and severe depression. And they made the tough decision to take a medical leave of absence for a full semester to aid their recovery.

It was a very difficult decision. But Lwando said they realised that it was all part of a bigger plan – getting them back onto their path to wellness. Regular therapy sessions were the order of the day, and thanks to an unwavering support structure that comprised family, friends and academics in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, they pulled through.


“It was like the domino effect; one thing went south and everything else went with it.”

“Wow! It was a very, very difficult time. It was like the domino effect; one thing went south and everything else went with it. My anxiety levels were through the roof. I was severely depressed, and things were not going well for me,” they said. “And my time off wasn’t just a few days or weeks. It was a full semester. That should give you some insight into the magnitude of the situation.” 

Pulling through

But nothing lasts forever. At the beginning of 2023, Lwando was well enough to restart his fourth and final year. Settling in was a challenge, though. Being out of practice for six months while the world moved on around them was no mean feat, they added. But attaining their degree was a priority and while keeping their eye on that prize, they said they bounced back stronger than before. Faith, a mother’s love, solid friendships, and support from lecturers carried them as they completed the final leg of their race.

“It was tough. No, it was very tough. But I made it. And I made it because I asked for help. You need to ask for help in whichever shape or form that may be. And everyone needs to remember that their health is priority one. Your studies will always be there for you to continue later on, but if you don’t prioritse your health and well-being, you may not,” they said.

“I am very proud of my achievement and for defying the odds to reach graduation. Having accomplished this is truly fulfilling and means so much. I guess because I know it wasn’t easy.”

New beginnings

Lwando’s new beginning has already started. They now work as an occupational therapist at Umzimkhulu Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in KwaZulu-Natal, and is loving every minute of it. They have high hopes for their future as a successful occupational therapist, and also plan to use their voice to advocate for marginalised sectors of society, a role that brings them much joy.

As for performing arts – their first love – Lwando said they aim to nurture those skills and use them in the future. Just how they plan to do that remains to be seen.

“Art is my first love, and its possibilities are endless because there’s just so much you can do. I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to pursue this dream and to use art as a vehicle to inspire change, to empower people and make a difference in their lives. That is my dream,” they said.

* As an inclusive community, the University of Cape Town is committed to using gender-inclusive language in its news articles. In this article, they/their non-binary pronouns have been used.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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