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Student success starts with wellness

Mental well-being enables students to cope with stress, realize their potential, study and work well, and ultimately contribute to their community.

As a powerhouse of all things education, including student loans and student fund management, Fundi strives to ensure students are taken care of at every touchpoint of their educational journey. An important aspect that is often overlooked is mental health, so a thought-provoking webinar on the subject, in partnership with Post office and guardianwas hosted to discuss the challenges and how to overcome them.

Topics that came up 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. The transition from school to university is always a big transition, but it is made worse when students come from municipalities with gangsterism and violence, or are breadwinners in single or orphan families. Many struggle to buy basic things like food and sanitary pads while studying; there may also be cultural and language difficulties. Universities often lack mental health resources, so therapists are not always available, but group therapy with other students offers a glimmer of hope.

Hosted by Thembekile Mrototo.

The presenter Thembekile Mrototo opened the webinar and said that this is a difficult time of the year for students as their assessments are being conducted. According to the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG), one in four students suffer from depression.

Benedict Johnson, Executive Head: Education Business Solutions and New Initiatives at Fundi, said Fundi began in 1996 by providing student loans and then began providing tutoring services and a scholarship support program. But it is not enough to just fund students: they should be seen holistically, as physical, psychological, emotional and social beings. To truly help students with their health, we need to hear what their challenges are. If a student is successful, it supports his family, community and country. To achieve this success, students need holistic support.

Student wellness and what affects it

Psychology expert Shanaaz Kapery Randeria said student success begins with student well-being, but “health” can be defined in many ways. Do we measure the success of students by how many of them manage to get a job after college? Perhaps the best definition is when a student is able to realize her full potential. The goal, therefore, is to move from students who are just surviving at the university to advancing.

Randeria said many South African students are the first in their families to complete tertiary education. The family situation they come from has a big impact on their studies: for example, the family may receive social assistance, there may be no running water in the house, or they may come from a single-parent family or a family with children. 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 conducted in 2021 found that 51% of students have depression, and a study from 2022 found that 20% of students need mental help.

Avuxeni Tyala

Students are focused on “who am I? And what do I want?” — they are on the path of self-realization. Our young people study longer and it takes them longer to find a job, start long-term relationships and have children. They develop concrete and abstract thinking skills. She said that later-life psychopathologies, such as addictions or depression, often begin in the college years, and the interventions that are undertaken are usually reactive, but should be preventive.

Optimal student health includes many factors, such as: physical and mental health, emotional well-being, having social connections, the ability to build resilience, clearly setting goals and strategies, making good life choices such as engaging in physical exercise, and long-term focus. In the academic journey, it is essential that students learn, grow and fulfill their goals. Mental well-being enables students to cope with stress, realize their potential, study and work well, and ultimately contribute to their community.

What creates stress in students

Randeria said the state of mental health varies from student to student depending on what they are studying. For example, medical students have far higher levels of stress and their suicide rate is almost four times higher than the rate of the general student population.

A big stress for students is that they leave their familiar home environment, and for the first time they have to take care of themselves. It involves self-discipline, and many people lack that ability — they don’t sleep regularly and may start drinking. Some have to send money home to their families, and some feel guilty because they get good food and their families don’t. It can be a big transition if a student comes from a rural environment and doesn’t feel like they fit into the city lifestyle.

Sometimes a student finds that their choice of study is not what they thought it would be. A big stress is when students are unfamiliar with technology, such as computers, which can lead to problems even with simple tasks like handing in assignments. The language barrier can also be a problem — lectures are usually conducted in English, which may not be the student’s first language. The workload can be overwhelming and there are distractions including other students, drinking, etc. Many students don’t know how to handle their finances because they’ve never had to before.

One 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 forces her to go to a party, then she cannot adequately prepare for the exam. The academic environment is highly competitive and stresses can accumulate. Many students come from a school environment where they were good academically, and then fail for the first time at university, which is very difficult to accept.

Njabulo Šibeko

A good support system is essential for students to deal with problems, and it is essential 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. The well-being and mental health of students is the responsibility of everyone — academic institutions, organizations that work with students, and the students themselves. Students must try to connect and support each other. Organizations helping students need to determine the best lines of communication with them: they may not respond to text messages, for example.

Randeria ended her presentation with a simple stress-relieving exercise, which involved alternating index finger and thumb touching, which she recommends for students before stressful events such as exams.

KKO contributions

Mrototo then opened the floor to the leaders of the Student Representative Council (SRC).

Ntando Mhlongo from the University of Johannesburg SRC was asked how the students were doing. She said they are mostly black students who are not doing well because of their culture and background. Many suffer from poverty and lack access to basic needs such as sanitary napkins. The SRC is trying to draw the attention of the UJ administration to these problems that affect the mental health of students.

Njabula Sibeko from the University of Pretoria SRC said external situations affect students, such as what happens in their off-campus residences. Even if your mental resilience is strong, if you do not receive pocket money for several months, it is very difficult to bear it. He said it was “a long way to go”.

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 transitioning from high school to university, having to be the breadwinner and balancing that with being a student.

Mhlongo said black students come from backgrounds that have a very limited understanding of mental health and the challenges students face, such as the “black tax”. These challenges are compounded if the student fails and then has to repay the money and be expelled from the university. Some students may use alcohol or drugs on a daily basis to cope, but may not realize that this is what they are doing, which is why educational platforms are extremely important. Sometimes there are resources available that students can tap into.

Sibeko said that UP has the resources, but there are not always enough therapists available in relation to the number of students who need help. The university is investing resources in promoting mental resilience, but should also ensure that there are more therapists. One student said she went to try to get therapy in August and was told she wouldn’t be able to see a therapist until November. Universities are difficult places for some students to exist.

Ntando Mhlongo

There may be cultural differences between black students and white therapists, who may not understand the levels of poverty that some students experience, or a student may have a spiritual calling that is misunderstood as a mental health issue. Sibeko says they asked students studying psychology to help them with peer counseling because they understand the problems other students are going through. It is important that students stand up and help each other, he pointed out.

Tyala said at Rhodes they are moving from individual therapy to group counseling and there has been a very positive response to that, as it takes away the feeling that you are going through challenges alone. However, a major problem is the stigma surrounding mental illness; if, for example, you can’t get out of bed because you’re depressed, it just shows that you’re lazy. SRC tries to create spaces where people can connect with others and their struggles, where they can find comfort and not be isolated.

Mhlongo said many students are facing financial difficulties because they have not been given fees, allowances or funding by scholarships or the NSF. These institutions are very difficult to contact if payments have not been made.

Final remarks

Mrototo asked SRC leaders to comment on how things could be improved for students’ mental health.

Sibekoo said there is a big disconnect between the university’s administration and the way students live on the ground. The rules cannot be followed and that there must be empathy towards the students. If, for example, students do not have food, then food packets must be obtained.

Mhlongo said universities need to make more room and be sensitive to: cultural issues, housing issues, language barriers, treatment of students by landlords and basic issues such as food, registration fees and access to certificates after graduation.

Tyala said we need to de-stigmatize mental health and that student wellbeing needs to be at the center of all our conversations.

Johnson concluded the webinar by saying that we need more facilities to help students with their mental health. “Fundi doesn’t see this as a challenge, we see it as an opportunity,” he said.

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Useful numbers

For those going through stress, trauma and anxiety, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) can be contacted on 0800 567 567.

For issues of sexual violence, gender-based violence or domestic violence, contact the TEARS Foundation at *134*7355#

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