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.
It is 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 necessary support.
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.
A Matie 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 support research.
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.
If the 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 medication.
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 dead”.
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.
Find a therapist near you: https://www.therapyroute.com/
Lizette 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.
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