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On 13 May 2016 I was given an extended leave of absence from Rhodes University because I was depressed, although it was my decision. I was advised by the manager of Student Wellness that I needed to take a break and seek professional help for what I was going through.
Anxiety and depression was something I had struggled with for as long as I could remember, especially in high school, but it was something I had never truly dealt with and going to a university far away from home felt like the solution to all my problems.
Like most young people I believed I could become a new person and it would be the best years of my life. Although that was true, I realised it came with its own issues.
Speaking to one of the Counselling Psychologists at the Rhodes University’s Wellness Centre I ask: “What are some of the mental health challenges young people face in university?”
“Career confusion, pressure to perform academically, relationship issues, financial issues, time management problems and poor study skills, may all often lead to anxiety,” says Kwanele Thusi.
“Sometimes depression comes as an umbrella, there are also issues like HIV and Aids and gender-based violence.”
Although I knew I wanted to be in the arts and media space, I was studying Law because it was something my family wanted and what my part scholarship would pay for.
Although I had pre-existing issues to deal with like childhood trauma, being in a space like university that required discipline, commitment and hard work was taxing because I was not even studying something I was passionate about.
“Young people think freedom is easy and now they discover that it is actually difficult to manage. You need to know what you want to do with that freedom, how you want to spend it and who you want to spend it with,” says Clinical Psychologist and part time counsellor at the University of Pretoria, Nthabiseng Ramothwala.
“Although they are here to study that often comes right at the bottom because of challenges like relationships, facing sexuality, and trying to find yourself.”
“University is a very big place with millions of people you are sharing a space with and friendships are often a big issue — it’s a point where young people understand who they are and where they come from, and you discover things about yourself. I had a student who came from Limpopo whose parents owned a business and when she went to the University of Pretoria she realised her wealth was nothing compared to her class mates.”
Ramothwala explains that finding your identity in a new environment as a young person is often coupled with pressures of popularity, how you dress, academic results and which parties you get invited to. When one struggles to find that, they become depressed.
Making friends was something I hardly struggled with but moments of loneliness in my res room were often present.
Although many students from Rhodes University battle with depression and anxiety, which create a sense of toxic comfort, everyone is dealing with their own issues and that makes it a very isolating place.
“There are often feelings of neglect because you are not getting the same attention as in high school and you realise you are on your own,” Ramothwala says.
“A lot of black families are still looking at depression as laziness, or a fault of the individuals. Although there has been progress made, often when you return home depressed, the first thing your parents think is that you are bewitched, which often causes a challenge for young people who need help from psychologists.”
“It’s important for young people to find allies, there should be at least one person within their community that will understand what he or she is going through.”
Although students still drop out due to depression, Rhodes University has tried to increase its student support services and that has helped reduce the dropout rate says Thusi.
“There is a student counselling, health care center and career center which are comprised of relevant professionals like nurses and psychologist to talk to the needs of students. But, awareness of the services available should be raised and preventative approaches to common problems should be executed.”
The campus Wellness Center had assisted me in notifying my family that there was something wrong. I was missing class, sleeping all day and was losing a sense of purpose. I remember some of my friends feeling like they did not have the same experience, they felt counsellors were not helpful. This thinking often leads to young people not seeking help.
“Working in a counselling center at the University of Pretoria we are kept busy from the minute we walk in until the end of the day and that already is not enough to meet the whole population of students who need help,” Ramothwala says.
Ramothwala advices campuses to be more proactive in getting help to students. However, students in need should join spaces like peer group counselling which often creates a more comfortable space for sharing and conversing on variety of issues.
“When students find themselves in dark spaces and feel like there is no future it’s important for them to shift their perspective. Often when you’re looking at a window you see darkness but if you shift you can see a ray of light and that might not completely fix what is happening, but it could save the individual from suicide.”
Ramothwala also emphasises the importance of not taking on other people’s baggage like the divorce of parents, or the challenges back home, as that often adds stress to a situation that’s out of the student’s control.
I realise now that challenges in life will always be there and the important thing is that one needs the tools to be able to face them. I think if I had known this that back in 2016 I would have stayed and finished my degree.
I understand, however, that I needed to leave to discover that.
“For some students, a change of environment is wise in order to look at their lives differently, but it is important that they set a plan for that,” Ramothwala says.
“For some students I think it is wise for them to stay and try to focus on their studies. People can go through the same things but we all react to it differently because of how our minds have been conditioned, so there is no standard piece of advice.”