Mental health prioritised

2018-10-31 06:02
Prof. Francis Petersen, vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State (UFS).

Prof. Francis Petersen, vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State (UFS).

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It is estimated that one in every three South Africans suffer from some form of mental disorder.

Prof. Francis Petersen, vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State (UFS) shares his perspective.

Students face specific challenges

Recent years have seen an escalation in the number of students at our higher education facilities who are struggling with significant mental health difficulties.

Our paths cross with theirs at a pivotal time in their lives. For many it is the longest time they have ever been away from their parental homes, suddenly having to cope on their own.

It is also a time when there is a strong focus on relationships, often leaving them emotionally vulnerable. Many also feel the pressure of high expectations from their families – especially in the case of first-generation students.

Tshepang’s story an example

One such student is Tshepang Mahlatsi. The year 2016 started on a high note for this bright and promising third-year Law student, as he took up his role as newly elected prime of the Tswelopele male residence on our Bloemfontein Campus.

But then came the upheavals of the FeesMustFall movement and he found himself overwhelmed by leadership demands – coupled with the simultaneous loss of loved ones and constant academic pressure.

It ultimately led to a breakdown, forcing him to put his studies on hold.

Seeking help early a benefit

Looking back during a much-needed time of reflection, Tshepang admitted that the warning signals had been there, but that he had suppressed his own emotional needs in order to help the students that looked up to him.

Seeking help early is one of the main messages of our Department of Student Counselling and Development. Apart from individual counselling sessions, they offer an array of self-development workshops on topics such as time management, relaxation and coping with stress.

These skills can help to prevent the development of serious psychological issues. This kind of group therapy has great value, as it shows students that they are not alone.

Doing it together helps

The value of peer support is echoed by the clinical psycho­logist in our Faculty of Health Sciences, whose sole responsibility is to look after the mental well-being of our medical students.

The demands of dissections, autopsies and long hours working in hospitals – being exposed to the pain and suffering of others – can be a severe additional burden for young health practitioners.

She regularly reminds them that one of their best resources is other medical students and doctors.

Interacting with people facing the same challenges as you, can be excellent therapy.

Of course, it is not only students who feel the pressure.

This was painfully evident earlier this year when Prof. Bongani Mayosi, dean of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town, took his own life after battling with depression.

The motivation for suicide is hardly ever simplistic, but a demanding academic working environment must certainly have taken its toll.

It was Mayosi’s death that led me to initiate a series of weekly talks on our Bloemfontein Campus on various aspects of mental wellness, specifically aimed at our staff.

Topics such as compassion and making sense of difficult personalities were discussed, and practical wellness tips were shared.

Mental health policy drafted

Awareness alone is not enough. It needs to be underpinned by solid policies that will hopefully guide future generations through the lessons learnt by previous gene­rations.

The UFS has just released the first draft of its first-ever Student Mental Health Policy. This policy seeks to redress the inequalities and disadvantages created by prejudice and discrimination against persons with mental health disabilities and difficulties.

It gives us a road-map on how to acknowledge and deal with mental health issues, not only as individuals, but as a united university community.

Solutions within reach

And it is here where the conclusion of Tshepang’s story provides a promising indication of the attitude of some of our future leaders.

While fighting his own emotional turmoil, this young Law student realised that part of his healing lied in reaching out to students with similar struggles.

He formed Next Chapter, a student-run organisation that gets students to­gether to talk about mental health issues and to learn from and encourage one another.

Through social media, radio-station talks and poster campaigns, their initiatives are spreading like wildfire.

In our current self-absorbed, technology-obsessed society, these students are igniting a new sense of humanness and ubuntu.

One can be one’s own therapist

Nowadays, Tshepang is very careful not to be taken up in anything that will cause him to neglect his own needs.

That is why he sometimes consciously takes time off from his studies and activist work – even if it is just to lie in a dark room for a while, listening to music. By sometimes indulging in what makes him feel happy, peaceful, and re-energised, he has learned to be his own therapist.

And here, I believe, lies the crux of what our response should be towards our current mental health crisis: We should learn to care again; for others and for ourselves.

Learning to care vital

I am fully aware that we can not take away the challenges that our student communities face. However, we can equip them to better deal with those challenges. In that way, we can focus on preventing the escalation of mental health challenges, rather than on treating it.

Tackling it early should become our motto when taking on mental health challenges.

Children should already be taught at school level to be open about their struggles and questions and to communicate these. They should be encou­r­aged to have compassion and reach out to friends who are clearly not coping.

They should, however, also be taught to realise their own value. They should know that they are worth caring for.

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