10 September is World Suicide Prevention Day. University of the Free State student, Tshepang Mahlatsi, has fought his own mental health battles and is encouraging others to do the same.

In 2014, Tshepang Mahlatsi (23) walked through the gates of Free State University as any first year student would, with optimism and gusto. He knew that education would make a difference in his family and ensure the rise out of poverty, it was up to him after all. But little did he know that his varsity years would be some of the most difficult of his life. Mathlatsi has been to hell and back fighting the odds against depression at university.

Mahlatsi grew up in a large family and was the only boy among his siblings. He easily opens up about his childhood years. “I was born and bred in Parys, Free State, by my single mother who is a domestic worker. She has always been the sole breadwinner in our home. I never had a relationship with my dad. And I am totally okay with that,” he says.

Mahlatsi completed grade 12 at Barnard Molokoane Comprehensive School with flying colours boasting four distinctions. A natural academic and public speaker, he jokes about his lack of sportsmanship. “I’m not good with sports, so speaking is my game.” He is the brains behind Next Chapter, a student organisation that seeks to destigmatize mental health issues, and branch chairperson of Students for Law and Social Justice at the University of the Free State.

Adjusting to university was overwhelming for him. By the age of 19, Mahlatsi was in his therapist’s chair as a first year student. Diagnosed with depression at 21, his internal anger issues and suffering were still unresolved and so unbearable that he wanted to take his own life.

Picking up the pieces

22 February 2016 remains one of the most painful dates entrenched in his memory. At the time of the Shimla Park incident, which saw white rugby supporters violently beating black protesting students and workers, Mahlatsi was the youngest member of Tswelopele Residence. Police and private security guards raided the residence after the incident to make arrests and used teargas to disperse residents.

Mahlatsi fought fiercely against the brutal police to protect residents from being arrested. As a student leader and political activist, he was emotionally traumatised by the event.

There are students like myself who will have to live with the scars of that event. I still have thousands of questions surrounding this ordeal, but certain key role-players like Prof Jonathan Jansen, Dr Choice Makheta left the university,” he says.

As a result of the emotional trauma and intense flashbacks that he experienced, Mahlatsi dropped out of university. He continued to attend therapy sessions at the university’s Student Counseling and Development Centre and it was there that healing and recovery became a possibility for him. Two people helped him speak out about his personal pain. “I am truly grateful for my therapist, Melissa Barnaschone, Director of Kovsie Student counseling and Development, as well as Masechaba Kgampe. These are the people among others who supported me. They worked really hard for me to get better,” he says.

Mahlatsi underwent profound therapy sessions that helped him to let go of years of emotional pain. His personal journey with depression spurred him on to use his lived experienced as a gateway to help other students who are also going through similar experiences. And that’s how Next Chapter, a student organization that aims to address mental health issues through dialogue sessions and group therapy sessions, came about.

“When I took a gap year, I realised that we need a movement that will advocate for the mental well-being of students. Next Chapter is a community of people who share similar mental health experiences or those who would like to know more about mental health,” he says.

Next Chapter, however, does not offer professional counseling to students. Its vision is to eradicate the stigma around mental health issues to bring about profound healing, wholeness and a deep sense of well-being for Kovsie students to embark on their own spiritual healing journeys. Students are referred to student counselling that is staffed by a team of registered counselling and clinical psychologists. Although Next Chapter is still in its developing phase, it has sparked great interest within the Bloemfontein community. CampusKey, one of the official sponsors, provides venues to hosts dialogue sessions for off campus students.

“The support and demand for our services is humbling. We’ve hosted two successful dialogue sessions and a green ribbon campaign that was endorsed by the university”, says Mahlatsi.

As a depression survivor he believes that universities should do more to bring awareness to mental health issues that plague students. “There are formal structures funded by Government to do this, but they are not inclusive, hence students come to Next Chapter” he says.

Mahlatsi has been open about his battle with depression and believes that suicide and can be prevented if people have a strong support system. “Suicide is a decision you make to take your life, but if there are people who can take you out of that mentality, then you can recover. Our organistation will be hosting a suicide campaign in September to spread awareness on this issue.” he says.

Despite losing out on an entire academic year, Mahlatsi is determined to complete his studies and to continue making a difference in the lives of others. His remarkable story is a testament of how a student battling depression defied the odds and discovered his ultimate purpose in helping others.