Although there are no official statistics, last year was probably
the most fatal in history for South African university students in terms of mental health.
According to reports, six students at
the University of Cape Town died by suicide, and at Stellenbosch University there
were three. On other campuses, suicide probably claimed just as high a toll.
Breaking the silence
With the academic year that has just begun, it is imperative that notice – and
action – be taken of these silent tragedies that are playing themselves out on
our campuses. Apart from the individual tragedies and human lives that have
been destroyed forever, these are scary statistics.
Last year, there was a public outcry
after the senseless murder of Matie student Hannah Cornelius. That is the way it should
be. A young person, on the threshold of their dreams, should not be robbed of their
life in such an indescribably cruel way.
Yet, the death by suicide of three other Matie
students last year did not also elicit nearly such an outcry – there was no similar
upheaval of emotion or outrage over three beautiful young people who also lost
their lives. This is not right, and it is our moral duty to break the silence and the stigma around mental
health – and to raise public awareness.
A study last year in Britain showed that suicide among UK students
reached a record level, doubling over the past decade. The prevalence of mental
health problems such as depression and anxiety disorder among British
first-year students has also increased fivefold over the last ten years.
described as a crisis, and the British government and universities need to do
much more to prevent treatable diseases from developing into fatalities. The
study also showed much higher numbers of female first-year students seeking
help for mental health problems – indicating just how big the pressure on
student support services is, and what their shortcomings are.
Students under extreme pressure
Although there are no similar university-wide
statistics available on the situation in South Africa, we can conclude that the
same phenomenon plays itself out on South African campuses.
For a variety of reasons, students are
under extreme pressure. The “always on” culture of social media is a major
contributing factor. There are also many more first-generation students,
something that places a unique burden on them. No-one in their immediate family
circle knows what their stressors are, and therefore cannot give them the
In South Africa, the additional stress factors of study fees
and campuses often under siege because of protests, add to the negative effect on students’ well-being.
student leader and mental health activist, Cally Ballack, thinks the
stress and anxiety of academic life is often a tipping point. “The negative
connotations and stereotypes attached to such illnesses often prohibit us from
speaking, as one is embarrassed to do so, or simply not aware of the
facilities available on campus to assist students, as they are not advertised
adequately or spoken about frequently.”
She says speaking about mental illness
is imperative to one’s treatment and recovery. “We’re rushed to Campus Health
when we sustain a physical injury or illness; the time is now to start taking
mental illnesses just as seriously.”
That is precisely why one welcomes Varsity Sports’ SpeakUp
campaign for 2018. The sports codes played under the Varsity Sports banner on participating
campuses across South Africa want students to realise that without mental
health there is no health. The sports that are played in the name of awareness raising
of the importance of mental health, are athletics, cricket, hockey, netball,
soccer, sevens rugby and mountain biking.
The campaign was initiated by the
Ithemba Foundation, a non-profit enterprise that aims to raise awareness of
depression and related diseases as clinical, biological diseases, and to
In our modern society, especially with
the new kind of pressure associated with our digital lifestyle, we must also develop
a new perspective on mental health. The campaign aims to improve young people’s
mental health literacy by empowering them with the necessary knowledge. Mental
“fitness” on and off the sports field is the basis of a healthy lifestyle.
As Cameron Peverett of Varsity Sports
and former rugby player emphasises: “When I was
playing rugby, the maxims ‘If the mind is willing, the body will go’ and ‘mind
over matter’ were used to get us through difficult times. All teams and
individuals do their best, and the difference in winning and losing comes down
to the quality of the decisions you make long before you set foot on the field.
The well-being of your mental state therefore is the foundation of any success.
This is as true in life after sport as it was when I was playing, and the
importance of seeking out the right support structure/team is fundamental in
keeping a positive state of mind.”
Our society has a duty to break down
centuries of stigma surrounding mental health. Mental ill-health has biological, clinical causes,
causing our most important organ, our brain, to malfunction. Something – an
external factor such as stress, or an endogenous factor such as heredity – causes
the non-secretion of vital neurotransmitters which can lead to abnormal
reactions, which in turn can spiral out of control if not treated.
symptoms are not recognised and treated, they can develop into clinical diseases
that may be fatal to some, even with the best treatment. Therefore, we need to
be pro-active and seek treatment, either from a clinical psychologist through
behavioural therapy, or with the help of a psychiatrist who may also prescribe
All students experience extraordinary
stress factors, but it is also known that especially medical students are under
great pressure. I was at a student meeting last year where the student leader
of a medical campus spoke bravely about the mental health challenges on his
medical campus – where it is a taboo subject despite it being a medical campus.
The problem was expressed in a touching piece by an American medical student who
wrote how she was caught in a vicious circle.
The author cannot ask for help, because she would be discriminated against. She writes that the stigma is sometimes
palpable. On hospital rounds diagnoses of mental health are often discussed in whispers. On one patient’s discharge, it was written: “He is not sick. He just
has depression.” As if depression weren't a real disease...
On her psychiatry rotation, the medical student
wrote how another student, after looking at a depressed young man admitted
after a suicide attempt, declared his admission pointless as he was “already
The author concludes: “I write this because we would never look at a
patient with cancer and say that person is already dead … I write this because
I hope for a future in which a medical student fighting mental illness will be
seen as someone strong and not as someone 'dying'. I write this because I dream
of a future where I would not have to be afraid to write this.”
Hopefully, the SpeakUp campaign will give a
voice to all students across all our campuses to not be afraid to say, “I
need help!” As the campaign’s slogan states: “Speak Up!” Please, dear student, speak up!
It can save your life!
Where to find help:
Lifeline 24-hour helpline: 0861 322 322
SADAG helpline: 0800 567 567 / or SMS 31393.
WHO’s website on mental health: http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/
SA Federation for Mental Health: www.safmh.org.za
South African Depression and Anxiety Group: www.sadag.org.
Rabe is a professor of journalism at Stellenbosch University and founder of the Ithemba
Foundation. On 24 February 24, a panel discussion will take place in the
Breytenbach-Sentrum in Wellington with Rabe, who lost a son who was a medical
student to depression, as panel leader. Participants are author Dana Snyman,
who lost his fiancé, Dr Cobus McCallachan, a psychiatrist, who lost his
daughter, and Dr Gerrit de Villiers, a paediatrician, who lost his son. For
more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credit: iStock