Wits SRC president Sisanda Mbolekwa spent her New Year’s Eve on the phone. As the clock ticked into 2019 she was trying to talk a student out of killing himself.
The student had been academically excluded and was scared of what his family was going to say if they found out. Mbolekwa says the student had a rope and was “ready to end it all”.
“He called me … and I stayed with him on the line and literally crossed over to 2019 with that student on the phone … The student held on to the faith I was giving him and he ended up not going ahead with it.”
In January, the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) helped the student to write a letter of appeal and he was allowed back to study.
Mbolekwa says this is just one of many attempted suicide cases, usually brought about by the pressure to succeed, that the SRC deals with.
She told the Mail & Guardian that when the SRC came into office in November last year it was receiving about seven reports a week of students attempting suicide.
Things were at their worst during exams. She says: “We were being called to attend to students attempting to commit suicide: students were committing suicide left, right and centre and we felt that campus was now an actual state of emergency.”
The SRC decided that it needed to do something proactive about the problem. One of the most visible interventions has been the introduction of destress zones, characterised by jumping castles and candy floss. Pictures of students using the zones show them laughing and having fun, something rarely seen during exams.
Mbolekwa says the SRC got the idea from the dean of students, Jerome September, who told them that the university he studied at had a similar programme.
“We then got jumping castles, candy floss, fun things; things that allow you to release endorphins, which is a happy hormone; things that will make you forget a bit the pressures that you are under.”
The decision to do something so dramatic came from the SRC members talking to students and understanding what made them feel that taking their lives was the only way out, she says. The main realisation was that many students find university an alienating space.
Mbolekwa says: “You travel so far from home; you come carrying the dreams and goals of your family on your back and there is also a lot of pressure that comes with the examination season because that’s where you see that you are truly capable … so many students walk into these universities with seven As and struggle to keep up with that academic excellence and this is due to a number of factors.”
Often students would build up to an exam and then feel immense deflation when it didn’t go well. Mbolekwa says: “You end up feeling really defeated after the exams, which is why some students feel like giving up at that particular point.”
A problem shared
Mbolekwa continues: “When you leave the exam venue, instead of going to mope around in your room all alone, you are able to come to destress zones, a space where students are able to come together with other people who are stressed about exams and they get to realise that they are not alone. It’s something that other universities can implement as well.”
There has, however, been a backlash from some students, who said the jumping castles made a mockery of students who committed suicide by jumping off buildings. The criticism, according to Mbolekwa, was that the SRC was perpetuating the idea that students must jump and kill themselves.
“We have made it very clear that we are in no way mocking anyone but we are just relying on what mental experts say: that once you release a certain endorphin it makes you feel lighter; it makes you feel better and you don’t sit [with] these very deep, dark thoughts.”
Siya Nyulu — a multimedia honours students at Rhodes University — wrote in the Daily Vox in March that black students in higher education institutions faced many mental health issues because of the pressures they experience at university, in an alienating culture.
“For a long time we have been speaking about depression, yet there is very little effort from our universities and government of taking [the]initiative to deal with the root causes of these suicides … We don’t need more discussions about the pandemic. We need our university and the government to take it seriously the same way [other illnesses are] taken seriously,” wrote Nyulu.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of American College Health found that 12% of South Africa’s university students experience moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 15% reported moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.
It concluded that: “Rates of suicidal ideation are higher among university students in South Africa than among the general population of the country, and student populations in other parts of the world. Symptoms of depression and exposure to trauma predict suicidal ideation.”
At Wits, helping students is happening one event at a time: from bouncing on inflatable castles to sitting in the sun and talking about shared stresses.