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Over the last 18 months, our mental health and wellbeing have been stretched to their absolute limits.

Over the last 18 months, our mental health and wellbeing have been stretched to their absolute limits.

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown restrictions have had a profound impact on people the world over.

As we are inherently social beings, the changes brought about by ongoing efforts to curb the spread of the pandemic have had quite an effect on mental health and wellbeing.

For students, this period has been an extraordinary one.

Between their academic obligations, there have been attempts at a student life, and having to ride the accompanying waves of emotional and mental strife that are part of the current period.

Various data sources have shown how mental health, in general, needs to have a sharper focus, as depression, among others, has emerged as one of the biggest challenges students are contending with.

This needs foregrounding and, frankly, all hands on deck.

Depressive and anxiety symptoms associated with bereavement, loneliness and perceived social isolation are among the biggest challenges with which student counsellors at Nelson Mandela University’s Emthonjeni Student Wellness have had to assist.

These issues are related to being confined in small spaces, not being around loved ones and peers, continued online learning that may limit human connections and losing significant people in their lives.

Several students seen by the team have shown signs of cabin fever similar to those noted in solitary confinement.

These are also affecting students’ ability to perform academically because, for some, a trauma such as the death of a loved one occurring while they are studying could result in studying becoming a trigger which adversely affects the student’s chances of academic progression.

As the university’s Learning and Teaching Collaborative for Success (LT Collab), we are working to put students’ mental health at the centre of our efforts as it is one of the biggest risks to both the university and the higher education system.

Emthonjeni Student Wellness staff have been working hard using a hybrid approach to assist students.

Most sessions, including psychological emergency care, happens mask to mask, while other sessions are held mostly through tele-psychological care.

Covid-19 and the prevailing lockdown conditions affected the traditional, face-to-face support rendered to students by Emthonjeni Student Wellness.

The centre changed things up to ensure support remains available online to students — in groups or individually — needing it in this challenging period.

We worked to ensure we have dedicated and easy-to-access support services available to all within the university, and have been encouraged to see these resources being used.

What is of increasing concern is the rate of suicide among students.

We recently lost a student to suicide, the second one this year, and have been aware of more suicide attempts as well as suicidal thoughts.

Other self-injurious behaviours, like wrist slitting or numbing through pain medication, have also been seen and these are at times used by students to reduce emotional pressures.

Developmentally, most students are emerging adults who are living, learning and negotiating transitions to adulthood.

Some are experimenting with substances, including gateway drugs and alcohol, as coping mechanisms.

We have seen a rise in personality disorders, especially borderline personality disorder, causing difficulty functioning in everyday life.

An urgent response is needed to respond to this silent pandemic, which the recently commemorated World Mental Health Day sought to highlight.

We need a strong message and intervention similar to the one seen when managing Covid-19.

In our ongoing efforts to deal with this silent pandemic, which we take very seriously, we have ensured that our students, in particular, are aware that help is just a person, phone call, WhatsApp or email away.

An online booking system was created to ensure ease of access.

From January to December 2020, Emthonjeni Student Wellness consulted with 4,153 students in individual and group interventions, and in 2021, by the end of August, it had assisted 2,198 students.

Crisis intervention, hospital admission, , stress-related conditions, suicidal tendencies, gender-based violence, anxiety and depression are among issues dealt with by the team.

Group sessions are also offered in the form of webinars, posters, memos, Facebook and Instagram posts, and other social media target streams.

While these efforts may seem like a drop in the ocean when it comes to tackling mental health issues, particularly among young people, it is hugely encouraging that there is growing awareness about this subject.

As the extent of mental illness gets attention in the higher education sector, we need to come up with practical ways of effectively dealing with this issue, which is not exclusive to the sector but a societal issue as well.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 15 October 2021 wriiten by Dr Phumeza Kota-Nyati, the Dean of Learning and Teaching at Nelson Mandela University, and was previously the director of Emthonjeni Student Wellness.

Contact information
Ms Phumeza Kota-Nyati
Tel: 27 41 504 2334