A year later and nothing has changed – the deadly crisis is still developing on our campus with little to nothing being done.
Due to the nature of mental illnesses and the situation on university campuses, this piece may be triggering to some.
In November 2017, I wrote a rather scathing article for the Huffington Post, expressing the extremity of the mental health crisis on our campuses in South Africa. Since that piece, nothing has changed in terms of structural or policy reformation to solve the dire situation that Stellenbosch University’s students and staff members are in, and the situation will only worsen if we do not act now.
The “Best Time of Your Life”
Student life is often referred to as the “best time of your lives” because of the sudden apparent independence, freedom to be ourselves, and the responsibility to make important choices. Perhaps there are indeed some benefits to being a young student and experiencing new thoughts, perspectives and insights in academia and social living. However, the extreme pressure of being a student in the 21st century has resulted in a copious amount of stress for all students, especially first generation university students, making their academic and living environments often unbearable.
In a deeply divided, historically oppressive university such as Stellenbosch University, campus life can be extremely volatile, suppressive and unsupportive for marginalised groups. Being in a space that does not provide support or proper representation for your identity can be extremely problematic. The act of protesting by speaking out against injustices has had an extreme hampering effect on the mental health of groups and individuals, especially when individuals are directly affected by injustices and discrimination.
As I have previously said, “marginalised groups can very easily feel suffocated or oppressed in spaces that directly or indirectly dehumanises their being and existence.”
The symptoms are ignored
When you suffer from a mental illness such as depression, anxiety and/or PTSD, you face severe symptoms that are debilitating to your normal day-to-day activities. This is particularly visible in a student’s class attendance. It’s often difficult for sufferers of mental illness to even get out of bed, nevermind attending class, due to the density of the crowds being too overwhelming or suffocating for them. Because of this challenge, it is no surprise that some students fail modules simply because they could not make it to their compulsory classes or tutorials.
National support is lacking
While the mental health crisis is critically visible at Stellenbosch, it is only an indicator of a wider systemic problem.
Although the South African DIRCO Team recently had to report on the country’s lack of approaches in dealing with mental health in the country, nothing much has been done after this. In fact, Minister of Higher Education and Training, Naledi Pandor, announced last week Friday that government will not be allocating funds towards mental health services at universities.
Because of this, the situation at Stellenbosch University that I am describing might in actual fact be much better than at a university with a lesser amount of historically privileged students.
Centenary – for who?
Perhaps one of the biggest slaps in the faces of marginalised students and those suffering from mental illness was the university’s approach to celebrating its centenary this year. Instead of spending money towards transformation and students’ wellbeing, the university thought it best to spend an exuberant amount of money on Centenary branding. Building sites, faculty buildings, lifts, the Neelsie, road circles, you name it, have some form of “100 Year Celebration” branding on them.
While thousands have been spent on this PR-project, the Centre for Student Counselling and Development (CSCD or “SSVO”) has made public that they lack enough funding to expand their psychotherapeutic services. This is a heartbreaking situation on campus because it indicates the disconnection between management and students. They may be celebrating the centenary, but many of us have to worry about our mental well-being and whether we may have to attend friends’ funerals.
Diversifying psycho-therapeutic services
There is no doubt that we are a diverse society, and it should make absolute sense to have a diverse approach when dealing with mental health issues. When it comes to the CSCD, diversification needs to take place in two ways: firstly by diversifying the various forms of therapeutic practices, and secondly by having individuals of diverse demographics as therapists.
Therapeutic practices can be extended by hiring trauma counselors who are specifically trained in dealing with patients who have experienced severe trauma, as numerous students have. Furthermore, a more nuanced understanding of various cultural interpretations and traditions regarding mental health are necessary, as a purely “Westernised” approach will be ineffective for those from radically different backgrounds.
Regarding the demographics of therapists, we need to have therapists of different races, genders, sexualities and cultural backgrounds. As some students have argued, people of similar backgrounds are able to relate and connect more easily with patients and will have a more immediate empathetic understanding of their client’s situation.
Talk talk talk
Clearly we, as a campus community, are failing to prioritise mental health in our academic, learning, and social spaces. Not only does this represent the current situation in our society, but it also makes clear the lack of action by people in power to provide empowering, enriching spaces for young people to grow and prosper. It is high time that the university focuses on crucial matters that truly affect the well-being of its students, and this does not have to involve the endless talks that take place.
Regarding mental health awareness talks, the usual predicament is that the same people attend every talk. Whether it’s the stigma of mental health, or the labels of “woke”, conscious people being attached to people who take part, the situation is simply that these talks are not reaching all students on our campus.
Instead, proper changes should be taking place within our spaces. For example, a simple practice of shortening meeting times could decrease the level of stress on students who are battling with time management. In addition to this, adopting training programmes for mentors and HKs who can facilitate and create healthy, comfortable spaces where they lead and exist.
The plan ahead
It is clear that all universities, specifically Stellenbosch University, have a lot to work on. Since mental health has begun being taken seriously only recently, it is taking institutions and society in general a long time to initiate any plan or policy.
One positive note is that the SRC Student Wellness Officer, Melt Hugo, has launched a Student Mental Health Task Team that will aim to implement an inclusive, empowering mental health policy on campus. Nevertheless, it is paramount that all students and staff members are cognisant of the mental health situation in our society and play an active role in changing their spaces. First and foremost, we must consider structural changes and the impact we can make We must be willing to form an open and expressive culture in our relationships and conversations, in order to ensure that people can engage about their struggles when they seriously need to.
As a campus community, and indeed as society, we have a long way to go. If something does not change soon, the system will ultimately collapse and further harm more students than ever before.