/ 27 October 2017

Addressing mental health issues in higher education

Drug and substance abuse awareness and prevention on the VUT campus
Drug and substance abuse awareness and prevention on the VUT campus

Each day in the calendar is celebrated or remembered differently because of its symbolism or the impact it may have had on our lives in the past. Some days and months help to unify the world. October is Mental Health Awareness Month, during which time people are sensitised to and provided with insight into mental health issues and how they can be managed.

Every year, on October 10, the world marks World Mental Health Day with mental health awareness day campaigns and activities. In South Africa the day was commemorated by a collaboration between government departments, mental health practitioners, nongovernmental organisations, institutions of higher learning and various other stakeholders.

The student counselling and support (SCS) department at Vaal University of Technology (VUT) observed Mental Health Awareness Month by creating a campaign in collaboration with external and internal stakeholders. The objective of the campaign is to make students aware of mental health-related problems and their contribution towards poor academic performance.

In addition to the annual awareness campaign, VUT has adopted a First Year Experience programme with collaboration from the student counselling and support department and the Centre for Academic Development. The programme raises awareness of mental health services and other support services available on campus to first-year students during orientation week.

Awareness is the main issue addressed, but there are other underlying issues that cause students to shy away from accessing mental health services, such as fear of being stigmatised. Many students are oblivious of or ignore their own mental health problems until they actually experience a breakdown.

Progress and challenges

The legal framework guiding mental health care in South Africa is informed by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996; the Mental Health Care Act no. 17 of 2002; Resolution WHA 66.8 of the World Health Assembly; United Nations General Assembly resolution 65/95; and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The highlighted policy tools, statements, and statutory mechanisms are significant milestones in the efforts to transform mental health in South Africa.

According to the Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Plan 2013-2020 there has been good progress made in enacting and implementing mental health legislation and policy since 1994, but many challenges that require intervention still remain. These include the continuing high prevalence of mental disorders linked to poverty, unemployment, violence, substance abuse and other adversities that increase the vulnerability of South Africans to mental disorders; high comorbidity between mental and other diseases; a substantial gap between the demand and supply of mental health services; and the inequity of services and mental health system weaknesses.

With regards to challenges around mental health in the context of higher education, mental health care services are now available in most institutions of higher learning except for TVET Colleges, where these services are not yet prominent. As much as the services are available to students, most of them claim not be aware of the mental health support they have access to on their campuses; some report that they only knew about such facilities when they were in their second or third year.

Awareness campaigns are organised to advertise such services, but it has been noted that most students are apathetic about the campaigns and shy away from going to the exhibitions to obtain information on what mental health services are available, possibly due to the stigma around poor mental health, or peer pressure. Another barrier to accessing mental health services on campus is limited service provision, which may cause a long waiting time until an appointment date arrives. When a student needs help, she prefers to be attended to immediately, which is not always possible.

Researchers in Germany and the Netherlands have developed a number of internet-based interventions that to help university students address their problems and/or challenges. Locally this intervention still needs to be tested, but the SCS at the VUT has created Facebook and Twitter pages to communicate with students who need support for their mental and other health-related issues.

Recently a number of suicides and mental health-related incidents occurred in the institutions of higher learning that were reported in the media. These elicited messages of sympathy in social media, including a comment stating: “We live in a society where the broken are expected to heal each other. Most of us black kids come from broken homes where depression is viewed as a weakness or a curse.”

This statement highlights a cultural and racial dynamic, suggesting that among Africans there is a need for more awareness and education about mental health. Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, programme director at HEAIDS (HIV and Aids) for Hesa (Higher Education South Africa) recently stated that mental health remains a huge challenge in the higher education sector.

A study conducted by Bantjies, Lochner, Stein, and Taljaard (2017) revealed that about 15% of students report moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety, which is of huge concern for the professionals at the SCS. Most of the students visiting the SCS office present problems concerning anxiety about exams, their study skills, workload and not knowing how to manage their time. As exams approach some students start to panic.

When these issues or challenges are left untreated the resultant disorders such as anxiety and depression can have a serious impact on the life, motivation, and achievement of students. It can lead to them dropping out of university or academic failure.

Most students leave their symptoms untreated and do not seek intervention due to the stigma associated with mental health illnesses. The pressure to excel academically also aggravates the students’ life stressors and some contemplate suicide as a way out of their life challenges.

Pending final-year exams tend to trigger and intensify the mental health symptoms of students. Many experience panic attacks, especially those who were struggling throughout the year. The thought of losing financial support due to poor academic performance can evoke other mental health issues such as depression; some students experiment with drugs to try to calm their nerves.

In order to address the challenges of mental health awareness within the higher education sector there is a need to accelerate, integrate and modernise the awareness campaigns.