It is estimated that one in every three South Africans suffer from some form of mental disorder. This disturbing figure sometimes churns through my mind when I walk on the three campuses of the University of the Free State and look into the faces of passing students, usually smiling at me in greeting.

Students- 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’s the longest time they’ve ever been away from their parental homes, suddenly having to cope on their own. It’s also a time where there’s 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

One such student is Tshepang Mahlatsi. 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

Looking back during a much-needed time of reflection, Tshepang admits that the warning signals had been there, but that he 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. So often 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’re not alone.

Doing it together

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’s not only students who feel the pressure. This was painfully evident earlier this year when Professor 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 Fatigue’ and ‘Making sense of difficult personalities’ were discussed and practical wellness tips were shared.

Student mental health policy

However, 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 University of the Free State 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 roadmap on how to acknowledge and deal with mental-health issues, not only as individuals, but as a united university community.

Towards solutions

And it’s 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 lies 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.

Be your own therapist

Nowadays, Tshepang is very careful not to be taken up in anything that will cause him to neglect his own needs. That’s why he sometimes consciously takes time off from his studies and activist work – even if it’s 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

I am fully aware that we can’t 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 open up about their struggles and questions and to communicate them. They should be encouraged to have compassion and reach out to friends who are clearly not coping.

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

Find out more about student counselling and support services at the University of the Free State.