Mental wellbeing enables students to cope with stress, realise their abilities, learn and work well, and ultimately contribute to their community
As an enabler for all things education, including student loans and student funds management, Fundi strives to ensure that students are catered for at every touchpoint of their educational journey. An important aspect that is frequently overlooked is mental wellness, so a thought-provoking webinar on the topic, in partnership with the Mail & Guardian, was hosted to discuss challenges and how to overcome them.
Themes that emerged in the webinar included the fact that studies show that many South African students are simply not coping: many are depressed, and some turn to drugs or alcohol. It’s always a big transition to move from school to university, but this is compounded when students come from townships with gangsterism and violence, or they are the breadwinners in single- or no-parent homes. Many struggle with buying basics like food and sanitary pads while they study; there may also be cultural and language difficulties. There are often not enough mental health resources at universities, so therapists are not always available, but group therapy with other students is providing a glimmer of hope.
Facilitator Thembekile Mrototo opened the webinar and said it was a tough time of year for students, as their assessments are being done. According to the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG), one in four students suffer from depression.
Benedict Johnson, Executive Head: Educational Business Solutions & New Initiatives at Fundi, said that Fundi began in 1996 by giving students loans, then it started providing tutoring services and a bursary support programme. But it is not enough to just fund students: they have to be seen holistically, as physical, psychological, emotional and social beings. To really help students with their wellness, one has to hear what their challenges are. If a student is successful, this supports their family, community and the country. To achieve this success, students require holistic support.
Student wellness and what affects it
Psychology expert Shanaaz Kapery Randeria said that student success begins with student wellness, but “wellness” can be defined in many ways. Do we measure student success by how many of them manage to find employment after university? Perhaps the best definition is when a student is able to reach her full potential. The aim, then, is to move from students merely surviving at university to thriving.
Randeria said that many South African students are the first in their families to do tertiary education. The family situation they come from has a deep impact on their studies: for instance, the family may be on social grants, there may be no running water in the house, or they may come from a single-parent or child-headed family. Some students are familiar with computers but many are not; if they come from informal settlements, they may have been exposed to crime, gangsterism and violence. One study done in 2021 found that 51% of students had depression, and a 2022 study found that 20% of students require mental help.
Students are focused on “who am I? And what do I want?” — they are on a journey of self-discovery. Our youngsters are studying longer and taking longer to settle into jobs, start long relationships and have children. They are developing concrete and abstract thinking skills. She said the psychopathologies of later life, such as addictions or depression, often begin in student years, and the interventions made are usually reactive, but they should be preventative.
Optimal student wellness includes many factors, such as: physical and mental health, emotional wellbeing, having social connections, being able to build resilience, having clear goal setting and strategies, making good lifestyle choices such as doing physical exercise and having long-term focus. It is essential in the academic journey for students to learn, grow and fulfil their goals. Mental wellbeing enables students to cope with stress, realise their abilities, learn and work well, and ultimately contribute to their community.
What stresses students out
Randeria said that the state of mental health varies between students depending on what they are studying. For example, medical students have far higher levels of stress and their rate of suicide is nearly four times higher than that of the general student population.
A big stressor for students is that they are leaving their familiar home environment, and they have to look after themselves for the first time. This involves self-discipline, and many lack this ability — they don’t keep regular sleeping patterns and may begin drinking. Some have to send money home to their families, and some feel guilt because they are getting good food but their families are not. It can be a big transition if a student comes from a rural background, and doesn’t feel she blends into the city lifestyle.
Sometimes a student finds their choice of study is not aligned with what she thought it was going to be. A huge stressor is when students are not familiar with technology, such as computers, which may lead to problems for even simple tasks like submitting assignments. The language barrier can also be a problem — lectures are usually done in English, and this may not be a student’s first language. The volume of work can be overwhelming, and then there are distractions, including other students, drinking, etc. Many students don’t know how to handle their finances, as they have never had to before.
A single life challenge, such as breaking up with a partner, can cause a mental breakdown or depression. It can also be a combination of challenges; for example, a student may have a heavy workload but peer pressure makes her go to a party, then she cannot prepare for a test adequately. The academic environment is very competitive, and stresses may accumulate. Many students come from a school environment where they did well academically, and then fail for the first time at university, which is very hard to accept.
A good support system is essential for students to cope, and it is vital for a student to know when it is the right time to ask for help. Several studies have shown that poor mental health adversely affects academic performance. Student wellbeing and mental health is everyone’s responsibility — the academic institution, organisations that work with students, and that of the students themselves. Students must try to connect and support each other. The organisations that help students must establish what the best lines of communication with them are: they may not respond to SMS messages, for example.
Randeria ended her presentation with a simple stress-relieving exercise, which involved touching alternate forefingers and thumbs, which she recommends students do before stressful events such as exams.
Mrototo then opened up the floor to the Student Representative Council (SRC) leaders.
Ntando Mhlongo from the University of Johannesburg SRC was asked how students are coping. She said it was mainly black students who are not coping well because of their culture and background. Many suffer from poverty and do not have access to basic needs such as sanitary pads. The SRC is trying to draw the attention of the UJ administration to these issues, which affect students’ mental health.
Njabula Sibeko from the University of Pretoria SRC said external situations affect students, such as what occurs in their off-campus residences. Even if your mental resilience is strong, if you do not receive your allowance for a few months, it is very difficult to cope. He said it is “a long road that we still have to walk”.
Avuxeni Tyala from Rhodes University SRC said it is really hard for those black students who have to help their families with food and money. She said first-generation students face many obstacles, including the transition from high school to university, having to be a breadwinner and balancing this with being a student.
Mhlongo said black students come from a background that has very limited understanding of mental health and the challenges that students face, such as “black tax”. These challenges are compounded if a student fails and then has to pay back money and is excluded from the university. Some students may use alcohol or substances to cope on a daily basis, but may not realise that is what they are doing, which is why educational platforms are extremely important. There are sometimes resources available, which students can reach out to.
Sibeko said UP has resources, but there are not always enough therapists available relative to the amount of students needing help. The university is putting resources into promoting mental resilience, but it should also be making sure there are more therapists. One student said she went to try and get therapy in August and was told she would only be able to see a therapist in November. Universities are difficult spaces for some students to exist in.
There may be cultural differences between the black students and white therapists, who may not understand the levels of poverty some students experience, or a student may have a spiritual calling that is misunderstood as a mental health issue. Sibeko said they have asked students who are studying psychology to help with peer counselling, because they understand the struggles other students are going through. It’s important for students to stand up and help each other, he noted.
Tyala said at Rhodes that they are moving from individual therapy to group counselling, and there’s been a very positive reaction to that, as it takes away the feeling that you’re going through challenges alone. A huge problem however is the stigma surrounding mental illness; if, for example, you can’t get out of bed because you are depressed, you are just seen as being lazy. The SRC is trying to make spaces where people can relate to others and their struggles, where they can find comfort and not be isolated.
Mhlongo said many students face financial struggles because their bursaries or the NSF have not given them allowances, fees or funding. These institutions are very difficult to contact if there haven’t been payments made.
Mrototo asked the SRC leaders to comment on how things could improve for students’ mental health.
Sibekoo said there is a huge disconnect between the university management and the way students are living on the ground. The rules cannot be stuck to, and that there must be empathy for students. If, for instance, students don’t have food, then food parcels must be supplied.
Mhlongo said universities must make more room for and be responsive to: cultural issues, home-based issues, language barriers, the treatment students receive from landlords, and basic issues like food, registration fees and access to certificates after graduation.
Tyala said we must destigmatize mental health, and that student wellness needs to be at the centre of all our conversations.
Johnson concluded the webinar by saying we need more facilities for helping students with their mental health. “Fundi doesn’t see this as a challenge, we see it as an opportunity,” he said.
For more information, visit: https://www.fundi.co.za/
For those who are going through stress, trauma and anxiety, The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) can be contacted at 0800 567 567.
For issues of sexual violence, gender-based violence or domestic violence, contact the TEARS Foundation at *134*7355#