Student anxiety probed

2017-11-15 06:00

Apart from exam stress and the pressure to perform and fit in, South African students are reported to also be facing a barrage of socio-economic challenges, which makes them more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Potential rape, victimisation and destructive protests on campus are among the varying challenges high­lighted in this regard.

According to a statement of Pharma Dynamics, a 2015 study conducted by Stellenbosch University among 1 337 students of varying backgrounds found that as many as 12% of university students experienced moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 15% reported moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.

Shouqat Mugjenker, mental health portfolio manager at Pharma Dynamics, revealed in the statement that nearly a quarter (24,5%) of students who participated in the survey reported some form of suicidal ideation two weeks prior to being interviewed.

“This is higher than the 9,1% prevalence that is reported for the general South African population and higher than the 6,3% and 11,4% prevalence reported among college students in the US and Turkey respectively,” Mugjenker was quoted as saying.

Suicidal ideation is defined as a person having thoughts about killing himself or herself, but it does not include the final act of following through on these thoughts.

Mugjenker indicates how being a student involves a lot of change and uncertainty, as they transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Added stress to perform in a highly demanding environment whilst developing a capacity for intimate relationships and trying to establish their own identity, often makes them more prone to developing depressive tendencies.

“Some students also fear for their own personal safety on campus, which could further exacerbate matters and make them more anxious, often a precursor to depression.”

Mugjenker remarked that students have to deal with all of these challenges before their brain is fully mature, since the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that helps you to reason and control impulses – is only fully developed by the age of 25.

“As a result, teenagers and young adults process information differently, since they use the amygdala (the emotional part of the brain) to analyse information.

“That’s why you will find that younger people are less risk averse and give in to peer-pressure more easily than older adults. Their reward-seeking tendencies, however, could also lead them to experiment with pleasure-inducing substances like drugs and alcohol, which could lead to a dependence and depression over time.”

Mugjenker said even though it may be difficult to pinpoint depression in someone, there are some tell-tale signs to look out for in young adults.

He admitted that accessing mental healthcare remains problematic in South Africa.

Although most academic institutions provide professional student counselling services, these are often over­prescribed, he believes.

“Consequently, students are unable to access even minimally adequate care to support their mental ­well-being.”

Interventions at universities and other tertiary institutions still ­predominantly rely on traditional approaches to psychotherapy, such as one-on-one counselling, which most students cannot afford, and which may also not be suitable for all students.

Pharma Dynamics has developed an e-intervention, called Let’s Talk, which aims to support students with mental health concerns.

The portal encourages individuals to open up and share their struggles and advice regarding mental illness in a safe space, where trained psychiatrists offer support and encourage sufferers to take an active step in their own recovery via psychotherapy in the form of videos and webinars, advice about medication and alternative therapy options, as well as educational literature and nutrition.

“We believe that technological interventions are critical in making treatment more accessible to students and could over time change the trajectory of mental health disorders.”

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