OPINION | 'Our youth are at breaking point - we must invest more resources in student mental health'

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"Over 65% of students who took part in our research during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown report having mild to severe psychological distress."
"Over 65% of students who took part in our research during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown report having mild to severe psychological distress."

Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, CEO of the toll-free 24/7 mental health crisis helpline, Higher Health, shares his organisation's findings on the state of mental health among students during lockdown. 


'Get educated, find meaningful employment, help uplift entire families towards better livelihoods, be a constructive influence for peers, provide credible information and advice on Covid-19 to others, grow the economy, vote, rebuild our country and develop the continent.'

These are the great burdens on our youth – placed on them by themselves and by us. Many are at breaking point.

These shocking statistics on the state of mental health among our students only affirm this: over 65% of students who took part in our research during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown report having mild to severe psychological distress. 

Psychological distress was more prevalent among female than male students and in those with a high self-perceived risk of becoming infected with Covid-19. 

Lockdown came at a price

The rate of physical violence in the home or on campus, including gender-based violence, increased by over 21% for students participating in our research (23% among women).

Pandemic-induced remote learning has triggered a loss of study time and destabilised study support structures, causing most students to encounter academic stress.  

Inadequate financial resources for basics like accommodation, food, textbooks, electricity and internet data further complicated students’ lives. 

'Have they lost hope?'

Of the more than 26 million South Africans who were registered to vote, the youth were in the minority. This is in a country where the average age is 26.7 years. 

Have they lost hope in the future of their country? All these factors feature prominently in the Higher Health toll-free 24/7 mental health crisis helpline, which is run in partnership with SADAG and has fielded 12 000 crisis calls to date. 

Callers to the helpline are counselled by specialised psychologists on personal problems, including study motivation, anxiety, depression, suicide prevention and help in cases of gender-based violence in all 11 South African languages and referred for follow-up services as necessary.

The helpline receives an average of 900 calls a month from psychosocially distressed students across the country, further indicating the impact of Covid-19 on young students.

More than 75% of callers are aged 19 to 30. Their top reasons for seeking help are anxiety (13%), depression (11%), relationship issues (11%), bereavement (10%) and academic stress (9%). 

These are alarming numbers but behind these figures are young people telling us that they might break. It is absolutely vital that we do everything possible to ensure that they do not. 

'Investing in mental health'

If we really want to see students and youth succeed and achieve the aspirations and expectations that they and we have for them, then we must invest more focus, time and resources in their mental health.

For the universities, colleges, and those of us that make up the higher education and training sector, investing in the mental health of students and youth pays off as it is inseparably linked to both academic outcomes and post-graduation success. 

The solutions lie in addressing mental ill-health causal determinants while raising awareness about mental health and providing youth-friendly counselling and other services to students. During the pandemic, institutions can prevent mental health problems by communicating effectively about academic matters and Covid-19 and by offering academic and emotional support. 

Financial support for personal or academic essentials should be seen as investing in mental health. 

We could also reduce academic stresses through Covid-19 vaccination, which would afford more opportunities for campus-based contact learning and ease the fear of being sick and missing lectures or exams due to Covid-19.

We should also remember the brutal impact of the pandemic on family income, with sickness and deaths of the family further exacerbating the psychosocial predicament. 

'Education around mental health is critical'

South African students have differing and often inadequate understandings of mental (ill) health, which along with stigma, prevents recognising symptoms and risk factors. 

Education around mental health is critical and can be done through social media and peer-based interventions.

Initiatives to reduce stress and exam stress, prevent suicide and strengthen emotional intelligence and agency for self-help, are proven to be of value. 

For Covid-19, there is a vaccine. For mental health, there is not. But unless we act and come together to help resolve this mental crisis and its causal factors, we condemn the future.

How can we expect students to succeed, become competent and fulfil the skills needed in our country when they suffer from such psychosocial distress? 

To reach Higher Health's 24/7 toll-free student helpline, call 0800 363 636. 

Submitted to Parent24 by Higher Health.

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